§ Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Shape.]
§ Mr. Speaker
Before I call the Lord President, may I say that I am almost entranced on my last day to find that about 30 right hon. and hon. Members want to speak on procedure? This is quite a new development. This keen interest encourages me very much. I hope, however, that there will not be a repetition of what happened last Thursday when a very few right hon. and hon. Members took almost all the time of the House. Could we possibly so arrange our affairs today that all 30 hon. Members have a chance to speak?
§ 3.36 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)
We live in an age when most institutions of authority in this and other countries are subject to increasingly close scrutiny. Our political institutions are no exception. The effectiveness of Parliament is subject to questioning and doubt both in the country and among many Members of Parliament.
The quality of our democracy is a major concern of Government and Parliament alike because on the quality of our democracy depends to a significant extent the quality of life in our society. It requires political and parliamentary institutions which are responsive, effective and fitted to the needs of a rapidly changing society—a society in which technology and science are becoming increasingly important.
It is because the Government are concerned about the quality of our democracy that since coming into office in March 1974 we have taken a number of steps to make it more effective. We have given financial assistance for the first time to opposition parties in Parliament. We have set up the Houghton Committee on Aid to Parties outside Parliament. We have established the Select Committee on Facilities for Hon. Members. We have published for the first time ever detailed proposals for devolution to Scottish and Welsh Assemblies following the Report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution set up by the last Labour Government. 965 We organised a referendum on EEC membership. We have established machinery in Parliament to scrutinise and debate EEC legislation which is at least as good as anything in any of the member countries of the Community, and we have organised a successful pilot experiment in the sound broadcasting of the House, assessment of which, by the Services Committee, I shall be putting before the House in the very near future.
We believe that the time has come to implement the undertaking that we gave in this Session's Queen's Speech to propose a radical review of the procedures and practice of Parliament itself. Today's debate is the first step in carrying out that undertaking.
It is not my purpose today to put forward cut and dried proposals about the precise range and form of this review. Members of the House itself should first have the opportunity which this debate provides to put forward their own views and suggestions. In the light of the debate, I will then formulate and bring before the House definite proposals for the way in which, as I see it, the review should be carried out.
I should like first, however, to outline some of my own views as Leader of the House on the questions which now confront Parliament as an institution and which any worthwhile review of our procedure would need to examine, since today we are much more concerned with getting the right questions than with trying to answer them.
At the centre of the criticism—indeed, at the centre of much of the criticism of parliamentary democracy itself—lies the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature, between the Government and Parliament. Clearly, the Government must govern, but they must do so within the limits of executive power approved by Parliament. They must also be able to secure from Parliament any necessary extension of their executive powers and to implement their election pledges, by legislation or otherwise. Whatever changes we introduce should reinforce and not undermine effective government. If democracy is to survive, it must be able to provide effective government. Indeed, much of the criticism of parliamentary democracy is based on the proposition that it cannot do so.
966 As I see it, the tasks of Parliament, on the other hand, are to set the limits of executive power and to scrutinise the exercise of executive power, to monitor our activities as a nation and to debate the great issues of the day.
This is the fundamental question: what is the rôle of Parliament in the last quarter of the twentieth century? The existence of strong political parties which fight elections on manifestos promising Government action, including legislation, and which in Parliament mobilise their Members for or against Government proposals all too often tends to reduce the performance of some of these traditional rôles of Parliament to the level of ritual.
It certainly is the view of many electors today that Governments always have their way, though this is not entirely true by any means, and that Parliament at best can do little more than exert a marginal influence on their executive actions and on legislation. There are also doubts in the minds of many about whether Parliament is the great bulwark of individual freedom which it has so often proved to be in the past.
I believe that these judgments are exaggerated, but they are made, and they are, I believe, lowering confidence in our democracy and making people look from Parliament to other means of influencing events. There is an uneasy feeling about that we are being bypassed. This of course is no doubt partly due to the changing way in which authority is now distributed in our society—in the board rooms of powerful, often multinational companies, in public boards, in local authorities and so on. Whatever the reason, the public's esteem of Parliament is not as great as it was.
It appears to me that the major need is to reconcile effective government with a system of strong political parties with a Parliament which is neither the Executive's nor the parties' automatic rubber stamp but which is so organised that it has the time and the ability to scrutinise and influence Government action, both executive and legislative.
Perhaps the most obvious internal discontents related to this central problem among Back Benchers, as I see them, arises from the feeling, first, that they are not involved sufficiently in the pre-legislative process, that their ability to scrutinise 967 and question the Government's activities is inadequate and that the way in which the House of Commons operates at present—for example, with its long hours, its detailed legislation, its many-sided legislative processes, its inadequate arrangements for granting Supply, and its watertight Sessions—makes any significant improvements extremely difficult to achieve. For many years—and this is my twenty-fifth year here—we have tinkered with the periphery of procedure and we have made some very well worth while marginal reforms. But there is now a feeling, with which I agree, that very little further significant progress can be made without quite radical change in our procedures.
To what extent, first, can the Back Bencher be involved in the decision making which lies between the formula[...]ion of policy by his political party and the drafting of legislation by the Government? There have been successful examples of the drafting of legislation by Select Committees. Perhaps the best known was the Select Committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Gladstone which considered the new problems caused by the coming of the railways. To its Report it annexed a draft Bill.
Is there any way of adapting this procedure to modern legislative requirements? There would, of course, be major difficulties in applying it to issues of party controversy. But the preparation of essential or desirable Bills where argument about principle or detail was not based on party policy might, I believe, be susceptible to this kind of approach.
Could it be done without endangering the Government's ability to implement their own policies? I hope that the Committee can look at the possibility of more debates at the Green Paper or tentative proposals stage prior to legislation. I am sure that parliamentary processes would be easier if more matters were debated at the stage before final decisions were taken so that the views of Members could be taken into account. So often Governments consult outside organisations, local authorities and so on at this stage, but they do not consult Parliament itself. We have done just this with devolution, as we did about the Referendum. Although the pre-legislative stage debate on devolution caused a great deal of violent 968 controversy, I am sure that the decision to discuss such a critical subject before final conclusions are reached is absolutely right. That is what we are doing here. But, of course, to adopt this approach would require a great deal of clearing of the decks in Parliament to find more time for this kind of discussion.
Again, the burden on the House might be altered if more use could be made of what is sometimes called "framework legislation". It is argued that Bills should establish firm principles of law. Their detailed application should be left to Statutory Instruments—[HON. MEMBERS: "No"] I am putting forward a proposal; that is all. It is argued that Bills should establish these principles and that their detailed application should be left to Statutory Instruments laid by Ministers and approved by Parliament.
The difficulties of such a major change in our legislative practice are, of course, quite clear. Would the House then have sufficient control over the details of statute law as it affects the citizen? How would the House effectively consider the increased flow of Statutory Instruments? Should it have power to amend them? The amendment of secondary legislation at once raises the difficulty which we discussed in the devolution debate—the difficulty of vires. A Statutory Instrument must fall within the primary legislation on which it is based—
§ Mr. Short
My hon. Friend will have his opportunity to speak later in the debate.
Another consideration about this proposal is whether it will give too much power to the courts. Certainly it will extend judicial review to a much greater area of our statute law, because secondary legislation in Statutory Instruments is subject to judicial review, which primary legislation is not.
969 Again, could Bills be more multipurpose than they are today? I believe that there is room for examination here. Is there, for example, a case for the departmental Bill embodying all the legislation for each major Government Department each Session? Is our legislative process in the House of Commons unnecessarily protracted either in the number of stages or in the time spent on each stage—bearing in mind especially that two Chambers are involved in the process of legislation —
§ Mr. Short
Could not the Report stage, if we have to have one, be taken in Committee upstairs? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Hon. Members keep on saying, "No". They keep on asking for shorter hours and longer Sessions. I hope that they will put forward their proposals, as I am doing, for streamlining our procedure.
Finally on this point, would it be an advantage to have an agreed timetable for each Bill when it is introduced, as the late lain Macleod suggested so often? A review of the legislative process would, I hope, he a major part of this inquiry.
§ Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)
The Leader of the House has put forward a number of suggestions which seem to presuppose that more legislation should be passing through the House than has been the practice in recent years. Has he considered the possibility of introducing less legislation and therefore overcoming these problems?
§ Mr. Short
The hon. Gentleman can make his own speech if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker.
How can the parliamentary scrutiny of Government executive action be strengthened without impairing the need, which often arises, for urgent and decisive action? Are all the means that are at present open to Parliament for scrutinising Government activity adequate? For example, is Question Time used to the best advantage?
In this area we have made significant progress over the past decade in the development of our specialist Committees. That is, perhaps, the biggest change that has occurred in the House over the past 970 few years. However, I have often wondered in the past two years—as the Committees have become more and more active—whether we are not heading for a system akin to the United States Congressional Committee system. In my view—and I said that I was expressing my view as the Leader of the House—that system would be quite inappropriate in our Parliament where, unlike the United States, all Ministers are members of and answerable to one House or the other. However, that development certainly represents a shift of power from the Executive to Parliament. It needs review because many problems are being thrown up by its development.
How can Parliament monitor the national effort in the economy and other areas more comprehensively and expertly than it is able to do at present? Does our method of voting money and scrutinising expenditure involve any meaningful scrutiny of the purposes for which the money is required and whether we get value for money? Last year's Appropriation Act, for example, relating to Supply, amounted to £34.8 billion. Even if every Supply Day had been used to examine that expenditure, money would have been dealt with at an average rate of about £3¼ million each minute throughout all the Supply Days.
The annual debates on the White Paper on Government Expenditure, the Budget and the Finance Bill add some time, but this is clearly an area worth looking at. The House has already recognised the difficulty by changing the Standing Orders to allow wide-ranging debates on Supply occasions rather than, in theory at any rate, examining specific Votes. However, the result, although enabling valuable debates to be held on current topics, is one which many still think less than satisfactory despite the valuable work of the Expenditure Committee and its Sub-Committees on current issues and the Public Accounts Committee on past expenditure. In examining this area of activity, consideration might be given to proposals related both to the Floor and to Committee, or to some other means, preferably of a non-party kind, which our Select Committee structure has well demonstrated is possible.
Do the old arguments for watertight Sessions outweigh the very obvious disadvantages? In view of our membership 971 of the EEC, is there not now a case for a different kind of parliamentary year? This raises the question of parliamentary recesses, about which I shall speak shortly.
Is the distribution of time between the Government, the Opposition and Back-Bench Members—at present about a third each—a fair one, bearing in mind the Government's need to govern and Parliament's need to scrutinise? Are the interests of minority parties protected in the allocation of time? This is all the more important today because of the growth of the minority parties in Parliament. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?"]
The extension of government out of the traditional areas, such as defence, health, education, housing and so on, into the industrial sphere, with the need for complex judgments involving science and technology, has imposed on hon. Members a new area of decision making and I often wonder whether sufficient is done to equip and assist hon. Members in making those decisions. The Back-Bench Member is increasingly aware of the difficulty of being able to call on the right kind of expertise. Despite the good work that is being done by the House of Commons Library and the institution in recent years of an allowance to hon. Members for the employment of research assistants, the Back-Bench Member often feels ill-equipped to deal with the technical complexities of modern legislation and administration. By contrast, of course, Ministers have behind them the massive collective expertise of the Civil Service. It is, without doubt, the growth in governmental activity throughout this century and the extent of the expertise its scrutiny demands which has done most to alter the balance of power between the Executive and Parliament.
What improvements are required in our support for hon. Members to enable the House to deal adequately with this widening and increasingly complex area of Government activity? In this area the Select Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) has already produced some excellent Reports which we shall consider when we receive Lord Boyle's second Report shortly.
972 What more should be done to inform or equip hon. Members for the decisions that they are now called upon to make and which involve science, technology and industry? The Government are aware of this problem, and in the Queen's Speech we said that proposals would be laid before Parliament this Session to liberalise the position relating to official information. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be publishing proposals on this later this Session.
An additional complication in decision making and scrutiny today is the constantly increasing volume—as well as the complexity—of information which is available and which has to be taken into account. This raises the question whether the time has arrived when the House should consider the use of computerised data, particularly in the economic sphere. In another place there has recently been an initiative, which has not yet attracted very much attention, in an interesting pilot scheme for the introduction of a computer-based information retrieval system for ready access to the growing volume of EEC secondary legislation, including the location of documents and information about the progress of legislative proposals. If it were decided to adopt such a system permanently, it would be possible to extend it to various aspects of United Kingdom legislation and other forms of information. The adoption of such a system would be of interest to this House. This is only one of a number of ways in which modern developments in information science might be considered.
We have to recognise that the great complexity of government and the enormous increase in other demands made upon the time and attention of hon. Members make it essential that they should have at their disposal a much greater degree of technical and personal assistance in carrying out their duties than could possibly have been thought necessary when I first entered this House 25 years ago. I am quite aware that this area is not strictly one of procedure or practice, but it is so closely related that I very much hope that the Committee's terms of reference will be wide enough to include it.
Another area of criticism is the growing difficulty of finding time to discuss the 973 urgent questions of the day when they arise, except under the constrictions of Standing Order No. 9, or when the official Opposition make time available. Bearing in mind the volume of legislation which Parliament is now required to pass, and which is not likely to lessen over the years whichever Government are in office, the need for improved scrutiny of administration and the need to scrutinise EEC legislation, how can we clear the decks sufficiently to find time to debate the great issues of the day as they arise without imposing a quite intolerable burden on hon. Members and staff?
A further source of discontent arises from our obligations under the Treaty of Rome—I have noticed the motion on the Order Paper in the name of the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) on European legislation—in the absence of any real parliamentary control over the new law imposed by the EEC which is in any way comparable with the control we exercise over our own domestic legislation. The principle of direct applicability and of the supremacy of Community law when a conflict with domestic law arises is inherent in the structure of the Community. Nevertheless, there is a widespread feeling in Parliament that the machinery which has been devised and evolved over the past two years—though it is as good as any in the Community and better than most—should be further improved to give the House more influence on decisions which are made in Brussels. How can we improve and develop our procedures without making the task of negotiation of our representatives in Brussels impossible? It is the same problem as I discussed earlier of reconciling effective government with effective parliamentary scrutiny.
§ Mr. English
It is not my intention to speak later. Is my right hon Friend saying—he implied earlier that it was—that it is beneath the pride of any Minister to go back to a meeting of a Committee in the Community and say, "I am sorry, but what I said last week has been disapproved of by the House of Commons"?
§ Mr. Short
I said no such thing. I posed the question, how can we improve our machinery for scrutinising legislation without making it impossible for our negotiators to negotiate in Brussels?
974 Finally, but by no means least, there is the human problem of the extent to which our practice in the House impinges on the family life of Members. We have a very young membership of the House at present. During the past Session the House sat on average two hours each night after 10 o'clock. Such long and unsocial hours, and problems such as the lack of harmonisation of the Summer Recess with school holidays, cause real difficulties for younger Members. I understand that in 1975 only two weeks of our Summer Recess coincided with the Scottish school holidays. The hours we work make it almost impossible for anyone with primary parental responsibilities for children under 14 to become a Member of Parliament. That includes the great majority of women of an age to enter Parliament for the first time.
Members have a considerable amount of constituency work, both in the form of correspondence when they are in London and in case work and engagements in their constituencies. I believe that Members, like everyone else, are entitled to their family life. For them, of course, it can never be a normal family life, but it is surely in the interests of Parliament itself that family life should not be rendered virtually impossible by our unwillingness to change our procedures and methods of working.
However the House organises itself today, Members see very little of their families when they are not based in London. Many hon. Members would give the highest priority to changes in our working hours and pattern of recesses. This problem has been examined in the past by Procedure Committees, but little can be done about it—only marginal changes—without major changes in our practice and procedure. It should be clear that we cannot change it very much. A timetable which is a product of a more leisurely age has now, because of the volume of parliamentary work, become a necessity so long as we are unwilling to make radical procedural changes.
How can the House perform its functions more effectively than it does today but in fewer hours per week? What must go and what must be streamlined in order to give Members more time with their families and in their constituencies? Have we got the right balance between 975 scrutiny on the Floor of the House and in Committee?
These criticisms and the questions which arise from them clearly show that the inquiry that we have in mind must range very widely if it is to be of more than marginal value. It must not become too narrow or enmeshed in procedural detail, the relevance of which to wider objectives is obscure. For this reason I propose that a normal Sessional Select Committee on Procedure should also be established when the need arises, as it does in every Session, to consider specific procedural matters referred to it.
I believe that the Committee of Inquiry should have some of the characteristics of a Select Committee, and that there would be clear advantage in having a minority of members from outside the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—who can bring fresh views to its deliberations. The way in which Parliament operates in our democracy is the concern of everyone in our society. I have a perfectly open mind about this matter, but I feel that if we can get the right people—for example, from industry, trade union and academic spheres—they would add enormously to the value of an inquiry of this kind. I realise that this would be an innovation and that it does not commend itself to everyone, but it commends itself to many hon. Members with whom I have discussed it. I should welcome the views of hon. Members on this matter.
We have used the non-Member on a number of of minor Committees recently. For example, we had the Compton Committee, the Renton Committee which did very distinguished work, and at present we have the Mikardo Committee which is looking into our catering establishment. These Committees dealt with and are dealing with minor House matters. All I am saying is that in recent years we have used outsiders to look into House of Commons matters. As the purpose of the Committee will be to produce a report which will have no legal effect without further action by the House, I should not have thought that the inclusion of non-Members would do great violence to constitutional propriety.
§ Mr. Wellbeloved
My right hon. Friend is praying in aid a number of Committees which he set up without the consent of Parliament which included non-members. If he had come to the House and obtained the consent of Parliament, it might be more realistic for him to pray in aid such Committees as precedents to be followed.
§ Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House why he prefers to have these specialists—the business man, and so on—on the Committee rather than their giving evidence to the traditional Procedure Committee, which might be just as valuable?
§ Mr. Short
That is a valid point of view. However, I think that it would be useful to have a number of fresh minds helping to reach conclusions on a Committee of the kind I have described. I believe that if the balance is right—[Interruption.] I am coming to the conclusion that no one is interested in reforming this place. I believe that if we get the balance right as between Members and non-Members, with the Members in the majority, and if the selection is carefully made, the detachment and special knowledge of some non-Members could be of considerable service to the House in an inquiry of this kind. However, this is clearly a matter on which the views of the House would be valuable before we come to definite conclusions.
I have so far indicated some of the major questions which the proposed inquiry might consider. I should now like to mention two matters which the Government consider should be outside the scope of this review.
977 First, we take the view that any question of parliamentary electoral arrangements should be a matter first for a Speaker's Conference.
Secondly, this review should not deal with the composition or powers of the House of Lords or relations between the two Houses. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] There may be a case for reviewing these relationships, but we feel that these are matters of such constitutional importance that a Committee concerned with the procedure and practice of Parliament would not seem to be the appropriate vehicle.
§ Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)
if the House of Lords is included, the power of the Government should be included, too. I did not want to interrupt my right hon. Friend when he referred to a shortage of time sometimes precluding the discussion of urgent problems, but I rise now to inform the House that my right hon. Friend did not give the major reason for our not being able to discuss important matters. No doubt that was inadvertent, but the reason is not a shortage of time. It is that the Government often do not wish the House to discuss problems that are urgent. That is the obvious reason, not that there is not enough time.
§ Mr. Short
I hope that my hon. Friend will give me credit for putting forward views as Leader of the House, not as a member of the Government.
The other place will be invited to initiate an equally searching review of its procedures and practice, and it is suggested that the two Committees should meet jointly from time to time, particularly in the early stages, to discuss those matters which concern Parliament as a whole.
I hope that in these opening remarks I have given the House some idea of what I see as the range and nature of this inquiry. I am well aware that it is easy to pose questions, but much more difficult to find the answers to them.
§ Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
Is it the right hon. Gentleman's intention that the ideas he is sharing with the House should be debated in this procedure debate, or will there be another occasion for that? It is important to know, because we have four Reports 978 from the Select Committee to debate today and we do not want any misunderstanding to arise and to be told later that today was the occasion when we should have debated the right hon. Gentleman's statement.
§ Mr. Short
The debate today is on the Adjournment and, subject to what Mr. Speaker says, I imagine that almost anything is in order for debate.
The basic issue is how we can reconcile effective government—a Government who have the ability to fulfil election pledges and who can where necessary take swift action, executive or legislative, with a Parliament, in which there are strong political parties, which has the time and capacity to exercise its full powers of informed scrutiny and influence.
I am sure that the House is in no doubt about the importance of the initiative that the Government are taking. The Government will consider most carefully the views expressed by the House during this debate, and also the views expressed by those outside the House. We shall then put forward our proposals for establishing the inquiry. The way in which Parliament works affects not only the whole system of government in the United Kingdom but also, as I said in my opening remarks, the quality of life of all our people. What the inquiry will be about is the adequacy with which Parliament is to perform its function in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
§ 4.13 p.m.
§ Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)
I think that the whole House will be grateful to the Leader of the House for having initiated this debate and made a thoughtful speech. He quite rightly said that the purpose of the debate was to throw up questions, and these are some exceedingly difficult ones. The right hon. Gentleman will be the last to complain if we do not agree with some of the answers at which he hinted. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly express my gratitude and, I think, that of the whole House to the right hon. Gentleman for having initiated this debate.
The right hon. Gentleman said that there was a need to reinforce effective government. I think we all agree with the phrase "reinforcement of effective government", but what we worry about is whether the steps that we take might 979 make things easier for bad government. That is a real fear for all of us, wherever we sit in the House.
I think there will be general agreement that we cannot go on as we are, without changing things, and I take the point made by the right hon. Gentleman that we have had a lot of piecemeal change that has not had any satisfactory result. It has every now and again made a little bit of space here and there in the parliamentary programme, which has readily been filled with some substance—whether desirable or not is another matter.
It is right that we should have this debate, but in discussing procedure we have to be very careful to remember how closely it is allied to principle. They are not in any way separate. The former springs very much from the latter and reflects it, and I am concerned, as I am sure are many right hon. and hon. Members, that a thoughtless and hurried change of procedure could do irreversible damage to our whole system of government and violate the principles of our whole system.
We should take this opportunity to ask ourselves how far we are successful in achieving control over public expenditure, how far we are successful in protecting the liberty of the subject, what we have to say on our record in sustaining law and order, and in what kind of esteem Parliament is held by the public. The right hon. Gentleman said that public esteem of Parliament is not what it was. Without delving into painful details, I would say that there is a wide range of opinion and that the bulk of it is certainly far from flattering to the House of Commons.
There is undoubtedly considerable pressure for reform, but we have to look carefully at the proposals themselves and we ought to answer the question: for whose benefit are these proposals designed? Very often, in my experience, proposals for reforming Parliament have been designed solely for the benefit of the Executive, with a possible accompanying advantage to those who want to go to bed early. To neither cause would I swear wholehearted devotion.
Of course late nights are unpopular, and often they seem quite absurd to the public. Perhaps I may refer to the 980 published views of the Government Chief Whip. His views, which are very understandable bearing in mind the source from which they come, are that the main business of the House should end at 8 p.m. and, secondly, that Private Members' business, a further portion of Supply business and most Report stages should go to Committees upstairs. I understand that that would be very convenient to the right hon. Gentleman. It is said that the time left in the parliamentary programme on the Floor of the House would be used for more general debates and more legislation. I beg the right hon. Gentleman to accept that more legislation is not a cause for which most people are prepared to go to the stake. Most people would like to see the volume of legislation considerably lessened and its quality improved.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Robert Mellish)
The right hon. Gentleman must not get me out of context. When I spoke about the House concluding its business at 8 p.m. I had in mind that the House would start earlier in the day. It seems strange that, year after year, the House makes a start at 2.30 p.m. It seems to me, and I took this view when I was giving evidence to the Committee, that the day's work should become that much more rational. The biggest problem facing the Government is that on Report the sitting is always open-ended, and if the record is examined it will be seen that on those occasions we nearly always have all-night sittings.
§ Mr. Peyton
I understand the right hon. Gentleman's anxiety, but what worries me is that, if we push a greater volume of business to Committees upstairs to make room for debates on the Floor of the House, the vacuum will readily be filled by other business and hon. Members will have difficulty in attending the debates. The more that Select Committees and Standing Committees proliferate, the fewer Members there are to take part in debates on the Floor of the House. That is one phenomenon of our modern Parliament. As the number of Committees is increased, fewer Members find it possible to attend debates on the Floor of the House. The public are inclined to assume very readily that hon. Members do not take an interest. The public are not aware of the enormous amount of business that is conducted in 981 Committee. We must be careful about intensifying the pressure that we place upon our time, that pressure which takes many hon. Members from the Chamber.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) rose—
§ Mr. Peyton
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman later.
The Patronage Secretary also declared himself as being in favour of fewer Supply Days and less time for debates on the Address and the Budget. That is a dangerous suggestion. Both debates offer valuable opportunities to hon. Members to express the views and anxieties of themselves and their constituents. Of course, I recognise that the proposals put forward by the right hon. Gentleman would be extremely convenient for himself and for those who have the difficult task of managing a party in this place, especially a Government party.
It is generally admitted that the overloading of our timetables has caused severe problems. I believe that it has rendered the Chamber a duller and more lifeless place. That has happened more and more as more Committees have been created.
§ Mr. Skinner rose—
§ Mr. Skinner
On at least two occasions the right hon. Gentleman has said that the Chamber is emptied to some extent because of the number of Committees that are sitting at the same time. Is he aware that there are no Standing Committees sitting this afternoon yet there are only about 100 hon. Members in the Chamber? It is more than likely that the Opposition spokesman for industry is attending a television studio to criticise the Linwood strikers when, in effect, he is on strike himself.
§ Mr. Peyton
Every time anyone gives way to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), he is quick to impart a sharp lesson to all others that they should never do the same thing. The hon. 982 Gentleman invariably gives a lecture. He never asks a question. The result of giving way to the hon. Gentleman is to allow him to make one of his many speeches, the aim of which is to be rude to someone. He has done so on this occasion. I was not confining my remarks to today's situation. I am grateful to the hon. Member for leaving the Chamber. I do not think I have ever been more grateful to him.
We must recognise that time is virtually the only weapon that is available to Oppositions and that much has been done to whittle away that weapon. We must all ask ourselves what defence an Opposition possess against legislation which they regard as abhorrent. The Leader of the House will have it within his recollection that a measure which was introduced by the previous Conservative Government was considered offensive by the Labour Opposition. A debate was closed at either 11 or 12 o'clock at night, and we marched solemnly through the Lobbies without a word of argument for nearly 12 hours. Whatever else was achieved on that occasion, nothing was done to fortify or increase the prestige of Parliament. I do not think we should get into that position again.
We must remember not only that Governments must get their business eventually but that Oppositions should have a fair and full opportunity to express their objections in a civilised and sensible way to what they regard as bad legislation.
A short while ago I said that any vacuum that was won for the parliamentary programme was only too readily filled, and not always in the most desirable manner. I welcome what the Leader of the House has said about the establishment of a Procedure Committee. Speaking for myself, I believe it would be sensible if such a Committee were established at the beginning of every Parliament. It would then be permanently available to consider any points put to it not only by means of a Government motion but by hon. Members. I think that there is a lot to be said for the establishment of a Procedure Committee.
A matter which needs remedying at an early date is the situation which prevails when an Opposition table a motion on a Supply Day. When such a motion is tabled, the Government use their rights 983 and table an amendment. That amendment is taken first and the Opposition have no opportunity to vote on their own amendment. That is a comparatively small point but a source of constant embarrassment and annoyance to Oppositions. That is a matter that could be easily referred to a Procedure Committee. I am sorry that we do not have such a Committee at the moment, but I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman has said.
I turn to the points made by the right hon. Gentleman about a general review of Parliament. I am not quite sure whether we should welcome his choice of words. He said that it would be a good thing to have some fresh minds. I am sure that there are many Members who consider themselves the possessors of fresh minds and who are only waiting for an opportunity to bring them to bear on this series of difficult problems. I speak only for myself, but I have reservations about the suggestion that outsiders should be brought in to examine the working of Parliament. It would be a tiresome performance explaining to outsiders how Parliament works. No new Member finds it easy to make head or tail of our procedures, and I think that outsiders would find it even more difficult to understand that much of the apparent muddle of our procedure arises from our need to accommodate conflicting ideas and people whom we do not much like. If we did not have such an arrangement the result would be violence. The purpose of Parliament is to accommodate clashes of ideas. That is bound to be somewhat disorderly from time to time, but the alternative is very much worse.
If we filled up a committee with outsiders, or even provided for a substantial quota, that would be regarded as an abdication of our powers that we had no right to make. The right hon. Gentleman has made it clear that he has an open mind on these matters. I am sure he will consider the points that I have made.
I believe we are justified in observing in passing that already far too many people are engaged in examining matters which they imperfectly understand and about which they have insufficient knowledge. However, if we are contemplating general reviews, there is one target that is rapidly becoming a favourite of mine—namely, the Government machine.
984 The Leader of the House referred to lack of expertise by Members of Parliament. If they so wish, however, they have almost unlimited opportunities to repair that omission. The Government machine, in all its multifarious activities, from time to time shows a notable lack of expertise. It is only the hallowed way in which that machine reaches its judgments that preserves it from a great deal of mockery.
I believe that a review of our proceedings would be all to the good, but many questions will have to be answered. We must have in the forefront of our minds that the purposes of Parliament should not be put in jeopardy by such a review, no matter how tempting might be some of the suggestions put forward from the point of view of temporary convenience.
I turn to the subject of legislation. It has long seemed to me that if we taxed our ingenuity we could have some system of classifying legislation. In the course of my labours in that dreadful place called the Department of the Environment, I recall the fact that legislation was urgently necessary to ensure the safety of reservoirs. It is ridiculous that such matters should be held up because of party politics. If the public are in jeopardy, as they might well be from such a cause, it is of the utmost importance that the matter should be dealt with without delay. But if such legislation is to be given a privileged and easy passage, will not this unduly weaken the Opposition in that it will make it easier for the Government to get through the more offensive and obnoxious portions of their legislation?
§ Mr. Peyton
I believe that Report stages have become somewhat emaciated of late. I would not dream of saying anything that could be taken to be a criticism of the Chair, but we must remember that Report stages are most important for the Opposition. If selections become too narrow, Members of Parliament will be effectively robbed of opportunities to take part in detailed discussion of legislation—unless they have the fortune or misfortune to be on a Standing Committee, where they will probably suffer from an excess of opportunity.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
Has the right hon. Gentleman noticed that in recent years in Standing Committees when a Minister is minded to accept an amendment he takes the course not of accepting the amendment there and then but of saying "I shall consider the matter between Committee and Report"? In contrast to the situation 10 years ago, a good deal of the time on Report is now taken up with that work when Ministers could have disposed of the matter in Standing Committee.
§ Mr. Peyton
I take the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. Ministers are easily tempted by the one way in which they often can avoid a difficult hurdle in Standing Committee by uttering a promise, which turns out to be of little substantial worth, by saying "I should like to have further thoughts about the matter". In that way the Minister makes no commitment and the matter can then be dealt with again on Report. [Interruption.] There is no need for anybody to get worked up about the matter. It is a very usual technique used by Ministers when dealing with difficult points in Committee. No doubt it will happen again. I believe that it would be wrong unduly to curtail the opportunities of individual Members of Parliament to take up opportunities presented to them by the medium of Report stages.
I should like to bring to light a point contained in the valuable Report produced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) on the preparation of legislation. He suggested that there should be adequate intervals between Committee and Report stages. I do not wish to go into that matter in detail, but it is worth mentioning.
My right hon. and learned Friend in that Report rightly dealt with the intelligibility of legislation, which surely should be regarded as an acceptable and not wholly disreputable target. I do not blame parliamentary draftsmen, who are perhaps treated worse than anybody else. They carry an enormous burden of work thrown on them by Government Departments and Ministers, some of whom show signs from time to time of not having thought out their own intentions or desires. We should set up a special society for the protecion of parliamentary draftsmen.
986 I should like to turn to the question of European legislation. We decided to go into Europe and we are now part of the Community. Apart from straining a few of our numbers, we have done very little at Westminster to accommodate an increasingly important body of legislation. We must make proper arrangements to treat this important business correctly.
The whole House owes a debt of gratitude to my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) and his Committee for the work they undertake, but the way in which they have been treated by Parliament has been a scurvy reward. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I do not blame the Leader of the House, but the immensely valuable work carried out by that Committee has not yet been recognised by according to that legislation a proper place in our programme. I am sure that the Leader of the House will be the first to acknowledge that point.
Direct elections to the European Parliament will intensify these problems considerably as the presence in that Parliament of British representatives who are not also Members of this Parliament will make communication between this House of Commons and the European Parliament more difficult than it is at the moment.
The Leader of the House asked whether the institution of parliamentary Questions was used to the best advantage. I have become increasingly doubtful that it is. It is very much easier to answer Questions than to ask them, for the simple reason that our procedures guarantee the last word to one party rather than the other. It does not very much matter how idiotic the answer is as long as it is short, but a Question has to be very well phrased indeed. I do not want to introduce too much controversy today, but let me at least say that Prime Ministers' Questions are not a superb example of good use of parliamentary time. It is difficult at times to find out where the Prime Minister is or which way he is facing. He disappears in verbal mists of his own and does not always add to the information available to the House or to the public.
§ Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)
Does my right hon. Friend agree from his own experience, which on occasions I have 987 shared, that the opportunity for a Back Bencher to put a second supplementary question to a Minister would often wound him?
§ Mr. Peyton
It has never been my desire to wound Ministers but merely to elicit from them the truth. I agree that it would be far nicer to have two shots to one's bow.
There is no doubt that Question Time is more interesting than many of our other procedures, if only because there are more people taking part, but it does not last very long. We could see whether Question Time can be developed so that Questions can be used more often for eliciting information rather than merely as an opportunity for hon. Members to score a point.
Prayers have virtually disappeared from our procedures. At one time Governments had good intentions of allowing time for Prayers under the new procedure, but now we do not have them because of the rule that they have to be finished by 11.30 p.m. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, who I know is concerned with the rights of Back Benchers, will see what can be done to restore this useful weapon to our armoury.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
Until Governments restore that as an effective weapon, would it not be a healthy discipline if only affirmative resolution procedures were embodied in new statutes?
§ Mr. Peyton
That is a valid point which I think the right hon. Gentleman will feel called upon to study with care.
I now turn to the question of Statutory Instruments. I was reminded by one of my hon. Friends the other day that in the course of four 90-minute debates £595 million of public money was applied to various purposes—that is, in a total of six hours. It is not good enough. That example makes a hollow sham of our boast that we control expenditure.
I wonder whether the Select Committee device should not be considered for a wider rôle in the legislative process. We have tended to add piecemeal to the number of Select Committees without giving adequate careful consideration to the useful rôle that they could play in the whole of our proceedings. They have the 988 valuable quality of bipartisanship which does not apply in Standing Committees, which often exhibit partisanship at its most arid and stupid. Perhaps further thought could be given to expanding the rôles of Select Committees and perhaps to setting up Sub-Committees of the Public Accounts Committee to look at one or more Government Departments in detail. That would give hon. Members a continuing experience of one or more Departments which would be useful to all of us. It would give us a knowledge which would be of increasing value in exercising our duties.
I am conscious of having spoken for a long time but I have given way on several occasions. I repeat my thanks to the Leader of the House. But we have to face some unpalatable facts. We are failing to control expenditure, and we are not operating as a sensible restraint upon the Executive. We are failing increasingly to echo the deep anxieties of our people or to provide safely for the future of our country.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Sydney Irving (Dartford)
When I first came to the House I used to say that if we were starting from scratch we would never have as many as 630 Members of Parliament. I have now changed my tune. I now say that if we did not have that many we would never be able to staff the enormous number of Committees we have. The numbers have grown enormously in the past five years. In addition to Standing Committees we have about 40 Select Committees today and our activities have grown in other respects. In 1900 there were 202 pages of statutes. By 1965 they had grown to 1,817 and by 1973 to 2,248. I am unable to give the present figure, which must be greater than that, because the statutes for the past two years have not yet been bound.
It would be a help if all Governments would exercise a self-denying ordinance in respect of parliamentary legislation, although this is very unlikely. We now have more legislation and Committees than when we ruled half the globe. These developments have placed an intolerable strain on hon. Members and, if I accept the evidence given by wives to the Select Committee on Procedure last Session, it also places a strain on their families. Our procedures make no sense to the public 989 and our habit of sitting late into the night confirms the impression that many people have that we are out of touch and living in an esoteric world which is a closed community.
Not only has the volume of work increased but the complexities have also increased. Much legislation now reaches the statute book without having been debated, and it is a common view that much of it is ill prepared. Some of that may be unfair. But it is important that we show the public that we have the capacity to take a fundamental look at ourselves. We should not make the mistake of thinking that this will make us popular or the electorate grateful. For centuries Parliament has been the butt of abuse by all kinds of people, but simplification and rationalisation should make government more intelligible and better communications should make government more acceptable. That is our business.
If this grand review is to be successful, several matters must be borne in mind. First, no minor changes can be enough to provide the scope for recasting our system to meet our objectives. The review must be thorough-going, free to examine the whole basis of our system.
I was disappointed when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that there should be reservations on our opportunity to look at the other place. We should have the opportunity of looking at related institutions. One of the reasons why the House of Commons business is so congested is that the House of Lords does not take its fair share in time or volume of legislation or other business, although in recent years it has taken a bigger part.
We have been promised a pre-legislation Committee by Mr. Richard Crossman and others. To discover the difficulties which have prevented its being set up, we should be able to look at the problems for the machinery of government involved in such proposals. One of the reasons, but not the only one, why we get bogged down in detail is the over-centralisation of administration in Whitehall, and because ministerial responsibility is involved Parliament also becomes involved.
Successive Governments have expressed the intention of devolving to other bodies, whether local or regional authorities. Instead of loosening the grip successive 990 Ministers—this is not a party point—have tightened their grip. We need only to look at one or two pieces of legislation in the past year or two to see this. Section 123 of the Local Goverment Act 1972 says:Subject to the following provisions of this section, a principal council may dispose of land held by them in any manner they wish.That is a sentiment that we might applaud in the context of this debate. However, we have to appreciate that that is followed by two or three pages of reservations.
The Community Land Act also restricts the right of local authorities to dispose of land while the principal Act lays down that no piece of land bigger than 250 sq. yds.—about the size of most people's back garden—can be involved in this devolution. When we read of this we realise that Whitehall is holding on to much of the power and the administration which gets us in Parliament—because of ministerial responsibility—involved in far too much detail.
This issue does not only concern land. In the building of houses there has to be at every stage a mass of detail supplied by local government officers and local authorities to civil servants in Whitehall. This causes continuous delay in the procedures when they ought to be much more expeditious. There are reserve powers raised in measures for the control of heavy commercial vehicles, traffic regulation Orders for avoiding danger to road users and preventing damage to any road or building—even measures for preserving the character of a road especially suitable for persons on horseback or on foot. Such things, and there are at least another dozen of that kind, keep in Whitehall and in Parliament the detail which bogs us down and makes it impossible for us to free ourselves to deal with the more important matters that ought to concern us.
Both parties have sought to bring about major constitutional changes in recent years in a unilateral way. These ought to be seen as affecting the whole framework on which consent in a democracy rests. While I do not want a written constitution or entrenched clauses, I want a greater effort to be made to see whether we can get agreement on the issues that ought to be part of the framework in which Parliament 991 rests. Because the proposals are put in a unilateral way, because they are presented on a party basis instead of there being a measure of consensus, when they come before the House they are open to much greater challenge. When they are enacted they do not gain the acceptance which they ought to gain and which they would have gained if they had been worked on as a consensus measure.
It may be said that such a requirement is impossible. However, if the all-party basis had been secured for the Parliament (No. 2) Bill the right hon. and hon. Members who carried out a terrific battle against it might have found their task made much more difficult. It was the failure of the Government to secure the closure that made it possible for the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) to be able to slip in between the differences of the parties and secure the overturn of that legislation. I am personally glad that that legislation was not enacted. I am sure that the Government would have had much more difficulty with the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill if such a reform of another place had been completed than they are now having.
It was common ground for a long time that the reform of local government was long overdue. Yet Parliament went ahead on the basis of partisan proposals which are still not accepted readily enough in the districts and counties. The whole question of the revision of the administration of the National Health Service, which has been picked up by successive Ministers from Kenneth Robinson onwards, was put through as a partisan effort and is now contested in the localities. That is despite the fact that most of the issues were agreed by successive Ministers.
The same applies to changes in procedures. Richard Crossman sought unilaterally to implement changes in the 1960s. He achieved considerable success in simplifying and improving our procedures. Because he did it in a unilateral way, however, he did not get the credit for the improvements he made and in some respects he lost out on the most important matters. On one of the most 992 important issues—morning sittings—his unilateral action aroused the opposition of a relatively small number of Members who made it clear that they would wreck the proposal—and they did.
If we were to find ourselves in a coalition situation, which could arise, the idea of consent and an all-party approach to major changes would become the prerequisite of all progress.
There is an element to which it is not easy to draw attention. There has been a restlessness, particularly on the part of many younger Members, over the past few months. They have quite rightly regarded what we have done—or not done—as representing no progress at all. The temptation will be to fill the Committee with a large number of impatient people. [Interruption.] Perhaps some people take a different view of the Lord President. The real recipe for success is a combination of impatience with a determination to map out the common ground between both sides of the House.
It would be a tragedy if, after we had produced far-reaching proposals, the report failed to gain acceptance on both sides and was placed on the shelf along with so many other reports which have been produced and rejected over the years.
Party politics are not a parlour game. They are the means by which power is exchanged in our society without violence. I am certain in this context—in seeking to ensure a consensus—that it would be better if we kept the real contest to matters of real principle. If we are to secure radical change, there must be a willingness on the part of all—Government and Opposition, Front Benchers and Back Benchers—to meet one another half way. The Committee will need to hear many witnesses. That is why I believe it would be much more appropriate for the House to have a Select Committee composed entirely of Members in the traditional way but to call evidence as widely as possible.
I do not know where Edmund Burke stood when he declared that there were three estates of the realm but added, pointing to "yonder gallery", that there was a fourth estate perhaps more important than the rest. One of our greatest critics has been the Press. Perhaps we ought to have some members of it as witnesses to tell us what they think is necessary if we are to come to terms with this 993 modern age. The time is ripe, if not overdue, for change. I welcome this debate and the opportunity which I hope it will provide for us to bring ourselves up to date.
§ 4.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)
I support the powerful plea we have just heard from the right hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving) for an inquiry which will thoroughly review all our procedures and which will be, in effect, an inquiry to examine the whole of our parliamentary system. The Leader of the House was right in opening the debate to say that what we are discussing is the relationship between the Executive and Parliament.
The right hon. Gentleman said that he saw the rôle of Parliament as being to scrutinise and monitor the exercise of effective government. I am not sure that in saying that he goes far enough. What I believe to be necessary is that we should restore to Parliament its power and its will to exercise an effective influence on future policies and to control public expenditure.
We all know that many people who criticise the work of Parliament and say that it must be reformed wish to streamline it—as they put it—so that it can pass more legislation more quickly. Up to a point, that is what all Governments want. They want to keep Members occupied—occupied in as relatively innocuous a fashion as possible—moving like demented ants between the Standing Committees that are not dealing with the real business and policy of the Government. The Leader of the House will have gathered from the various interventions in his speech that most hon. Members—at least, those on this side—think that the real need is for less legislation and, above all, for such legislation as we have to be much more carefully prepared and scrutinised.
I should like to associate myself, as I am sure will many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides, with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) said about the Report of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton). His Committee's Report on the preparation of legislation is one of the most important documents to come before the House for a very long time. It is a gold-mine of ideas. It will require many hours of careful consideration, consideration 994 which cannot easily be given across the Floor of the House, but which should occupy a great deal of the attention of any Committee which may be established to deal with it.
As the right hon. Member for Dartford said, it is salutary for all of us to realise how the great reforming Parliaments of the early 1900s managed with so little legislation. The 1912 Parliament had only 146 pages of legislation, including the Finance Act. So in those days there was not the destruction of family life which so worries the Leader of the House. It did not happen then because those Parliaments did not waste so much time. There were shorter Sessions and fewer Committees, yet in those days twice as much time was spent debating Supply and Estimates.
As the right hon. Member for Dartford said, on average we pass well over 2,000 pages of legislation a year, but that is to say nothing of the much greater number of Statutory Rules and Statutory Instruments, which occupy many thousands of pages each year. Therefore, today neither Members of Parliament nor professional men who have to advise the public have any idea of all the changes that are occurring in the law all the time. I do not suppose that many hon. Members on either side could give the names of even half the Bills which were passed into law last Session.
What I believe is so destructive of Parliament is the way in which we conduct our business—the continual stream of legislation; the continual stream of Votes, many of them stupidly upgraded, on minor details of legislation which should be dealt with in a more effective way. We must take the view that it is up to us to regulate our own procedures. I do not at all like the idea that a Committee to review our own procedures should have people from outside upon it. It is right that such a Committee should call before it anybody it cares to call to give evidence. That is its business. I would much rather we let outside people get on with their own job, which we are not nowadays inclined to do. I am sure that they in return would be willing to let us get on with ours.
We need to buttress the right of parliamentary Committees to monitor policies as they evolve rather than merely reacting to past events. I am sure that 995 many hon. Members will agree that to a large extent the Public Accounts Committee and the Select Committee on Estimates, for example, still deal to far too great an extent with what has happened and not with what is happening. Even the specialist Committees established in recent years have been too much in the nature of study groups and have been rather like all the Royal Commissions and other bodies set up by the Government, designed to kick the ball into the long grass from which it will no doubt emerge, as always, muddier than ever. I should like to see established machinery designed to ensure that Parliament considered more Bills at an earlier stage in the decision-making process.
The right hon. Member for Dartford referred to the pressure over the years for a pre-legislation Committee. This is most necessary. First, I see no reason why draft Bills should not be tabled and, when appropriate, discussed and debated before the Government make final decisions of policy. Such a process would be as helpful to Ministers, if they really believed in their own legislation, as it would be to Parliament, since it would broaden the basis of the advice they received and make the process of formulating policy much more open and democratic.
The right hon. Member for Dartford referred to the Community Land Act. Had that been presented as a draft Bill, we should have got rid of the incredible and replaced it simply by the unacceptable; many of the absurdities would have been removed. We should have looked at the problem of the churches at an earlier stage and in a proper way. The powers of local authorities and the rights of individuals would also have been examined carefully at an earlier stage.
An example which I cite from my own experience is the Housing and Planning Bill which I introduced in January 1974. There had been a White Paper, which is a very good way of introducing the Government's ideas, but when the Bill was presented to Parliament, it differed from the White Paper. Nobody could understand quickly why it differed, for the Second Reading debate of a Bill sometimes takes place too soon after the presentation of the Bill. The Opposition of the day opposed the Bill—the automatic 996 reaction of an Opposition who do not understand something.
It would have been an advantage to me as the Minister in charge, in the light of views expressed on the White Paper and perhaps by outside bodies, to have had some pre-legislation Committee. I could have taken that draft Bill away and had further discussions with parliamentary draftsmen and officials.
Proceedings before such a pre-legislation Committee could be quite informal. Thereafter, a Minister could go away and explain things to his colleagues and adapt the Bill accordingly.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
In fairness to the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) it must be said that before the publication of one of the White Papers connected with that Bill he went before a Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee dealing with that subject and had exactly that kind of discussion with officials. Afterwards the White Paper was finalised.
§ Mr. Rippon
Yes, but we did not have any formal procedure for bringing the Bill before all hon. Members. I am not complaining that some efforts are not made to explain matters—some of the efforts are made formally—but I do not think that we go sufficiently far in our efforts to explain to the public. I see no reason why First Reading discussions should not be public.
A Bill reaches a stage in its preparation when it goes through various Cabinet procedures, to which I will not refer. A sort of iron curtain comes down when a Minister is still perhaps having discussions behind the scenes with professional bodies but not with the House of Commons. There would be a great advantage in having a pre-legislation Committee to deal not only with legislation but perhaps with major projects such as London dockland. Recently there has been a Select Committee to consider what has been happening about Docklands. It would be much better if there were a procedure by which a Minister could bring to Parliament proposals for dealing with such a major development. I believe that this is one of the major improvements that could be made in our procedures to reestablish the authority of Parliament over policy.
997 As my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil said, it may be that we could do something about the classification of Bills. The Safety of Reservoirs Bill was the type of Bill which could have gone to a Second Reading Committee.
I would not want to see Parliament restricted in any way in the power to have the Report stage on the Floor of the House. The real answer is not to have so many Bills. We should not have so many Standing Committees dealing with Bills. With due respect to my hon. Friends, to whom I am not referring, we should have fewer junior Ministers, because that would give us fewer people to man Standing Committees and so force us to limit the amount of legislation.
I can see no reason why Ministers should not present their departmental Estimates in advance of their being approved and incorporated in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's total Budget proposals. Reference has been made to the huge sums of money voted by the House in a matter of hours, but the £5,000 million or so spent by the Department of the Environment is never considered at all. It is important that we should have some formal procedure whereby the Minister, who is responsible for his Department's expenditure and who has an accounting officer, could come to the House and tell us what he would like to spend on, for instance, roads and housing and listen to hon. Members' views.
By the time the Budget was presented the House would already have begun to impose cash limits. We ask Departments to impose cash limits, but if Parliament is to control public expenditure, it must take the responsibility of imposing these limits itself. We may not find it an agreeable task, but we should face it. If the economic circumstances change and there have to be cuts or Supplementary Estimates, a Minister should come to Parliament, explain why they are necessary and get authority for them.
I have often said that if the Treasury and the Bank of England disagree, the Bank is right and that if they both agree both are wrong. But even if the Treasury may be very good on the major issues, it is no good at all at interfering in the details of departmental Estimates. That control would be much better exercised by some form of parliamentary procedure.
998 We make an effort now to look at proposed changes in tax laws before the Budget, and that practice should be extended. The Front Bench speakers mentioned the possibility of expanding the role of Select Committees. It may seem that some of our Committees have just been study groups, but others have done a very effective job. I should like to see the process extended.
The Select Committee which might be of perhaps the greatest benefit would be one on the public service, dealing with the machinery of government. We could address to that Committee some of the difficulties and problems referred to by the right hon. Member for Dartford. If Parliament controlled the policy of legislation at an early stage and public expenditure, the growth of the public services and the machinery of government, we should once again have the sort of Parliament that people would respect. Such a Committee was recommended in 1945. No doubt it is still under active consideration.
We want to avoid the situation in which the public directs its attack in the wrong direction. People are apt simply to say that civil servants are responsible. We in this House are inclined to say that the Government are responsible. It is not the bureaucrats we have to attack, but the processes of government that create the work they have to perform. It is over these processes that Parliament ought now to reassert its authority.
§ 5.14 p.m.
§ Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)
Unlike most hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, I very much doubt whether when this Committee has reported we shall get a revolution in this place. It is not made for revolutions. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House posed a number of problems of which we are aware and other hon. Members have referred to other difficulties, but they all revolve around the perennial problem of the Executive versus the Legislature. Whatever Governments or Oppositions may say about open government, none of them believes in it. Whenever a party takes power, it surrounds itself with secrecy. It does not want Back Benchers to know more than the bare minimum of what the Government are doing.
999 I find myself in total opposition to the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that outsiders should sit on this Committee. He suggested that one of them should be a trade unionist. We used to have the statutory woman. Now it appears we are to have the statutory trade unionist.
I wonder what would happen if the House said that there was to be an investigation of the internal affairs of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and that three hon. Members would sit on the investigating committee. The union would tell us to mind our own bloody business, and it would be quite right. It is the same with this place. We are the only people who can put it right. We should keep the Government out. This is a matter for Back Benchers. Let trade unionists, Professor Bernard Crick and other outsiders give evidence, but they should not be members of the Committee.
Excluding the House of Lords and the Monarchy from the reform of the machinery of government indicates the basic conservatism of the approach of the Leader of the House in these matters.
Statistics have been quoted to show the proliferation of Select Committees. I am a great believer in Select Committees because they can dig out information which cannot be dug out by any other means known to the House—certainly not across the Floor of the House, whether by Question or debate. However, there is growing evidence that the Select Committee procedure is being used by the Government as a means of delay.
A Select Committee becomes a miniature Royal Commission. A Commission takes four years, a Committee only two, but the purpose is being served just the same. We had a Select Committee determined to get at the truth. The Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee was determined to get at the truth about Chrysler, but the Prime Minister stepped in and said that on no account would the Committee be allowed to have the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to give evidence—on the spurious ground that the right hon. Gentleman had no responsibility in the matter. Everybody in the country knows that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was the author 1000 and principal of the Chrysler disaster. He has merely deferred something which will occur, as surely as night follows day, within two or three years, if not sooner.
The Committee wanted to get at the man responsible for drawing up that agreement. The piece of arrogant impertinence on the part of the Prime Minister was contrary to the rules of the House. Paragraph 271 in the House of Commons Manual of Procedure says:If a select committee desires the attendance of a Member as a witness, the chairman of the committee writes and requests him to attend. Should he refuse, a report is made to the House who may order him to attend.It is nothing whatever to do with the Prime Minister or the Executive. It is a matter for the House, and the House has not chosen to act. The Chairman of that Sub-Committee has refused—maybe he is not aware of the paragraph. However, if we are serious in our desire to get at the Executive, a report should be made to the House. No matter what the Prime Minister says, we should demand the presence of the Chancellor of the Duchy at the Committee so that we may discover the truth of what took place.
I can give a comparatively minor example along those lines from my own experience. A short while ago, my right hon. Friend announced the appointment of the Select Committee on Violence in Marriage. I became the Chairman of that Committee. At an early stage I realised that although several Departments were involved, the Minister most responsible over these matters was my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I wrote her a letter asking her to come along, and she said that she would send her junior. He came and was most affable, but singularly uninformative. After due time I again wrote to my right hon. Friend and she said "No, not yet."
I then proceeded to advise the Committee about what to do. We sent another communication to my right hon. Friend stating that she should attend on a particular date. She said that if we wanted it that way, she would come along, but that to save the time of the Committee she would prepare a written statement that she would read. I agreed. She came along dressed up to go to a social jamboree on the Government Hospitality Fund. She said she wanted to be away 1001 at six o'clock and that it might save the Committee's time if she read her statement. I told her to carry on. In the middle of it I stopped her in my capacity as Chairman and I said that I doubted very much whether the reading of the statement would shorten our proceedings. I damned well made sure that she did not get away at six o'clock. Unless Back Bench Members take such an attitude to the Government, we shall get nowhere.
I suspect that the device now being put before us is designed to keep us quiet for a while. Maybe it will get us to the next General Election, whenever that is. I have been in the House slightly longer than my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but the difference is that I have been permanently in opposition to Government all that time. Whichever Government have been in office, I have not liked them, and I have suspected them.
I have another example of the denial by the Government in practice of what they preach. We talk of open government. Like their predecessor, the Government have a number of party political advisers in various Government Departments. I am not against that. It is not a bad thing to have the party political point of view put to Ministers, who are far too often right under the thumb of the mandarins of the Civil Service. It is equally important that the House has a right to know what those advisers are being paid.
I tabled a Question to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asking specifically what salaries the advisers were paid. He has given me a collective figure, but when asked for a breakdown, the Government have steadfastly and repeatedly refused to give it. I do not know what the grounds for their refusal are, but I know of no reason why the House should not have that kind of information.
One of the reasons the House does not make progress in securing greater power for itself is that there is a sinister commodity called patronage. There is pliable material on the Back Benches, people who hope for preferment, or whose wives or whose constituency party chairmen are hoping for an MBE, a CBE, or a knighthood. No one uses that more than 1002 the Prime Minister. He fondles his patronage like a bridegroom fondles his bride on their honeymoon night and he gives his honours to his friends and relations and to the raincoat sellers. This I find intensely corrupting in this place.
I have reached the stage in my career where I fear for no favour. I can say what I darned well like about these things.
Mr. Frank Hooky (Sheffield, Heeley)
Has it never crossed my hon. Friend's mind that some of us say what is on our minds, favour or no favour, whichever stage of our career we have reached?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I concede at once that there are exceptions to the rule. However, my hon. Friend knows, as every one knows—and I could name names—that there are Members on both sides who will not talk straight to the Government of the day for some of the reasons I have outlined.
This House should, for instance, have charge of its own budget. We should decide on the facilities that we want—
§ Mr. Hamilton
But we do not, because the Treasury has the last word. It determines what we should have. We should determine that and we should be having a vote tonight. The Back Benchers should have put down a motion tonight saying what they want as a minimum, and they should have voted upon it. Of course, the Government would then say that they cannot provide the resources. In that sense the Treasury has the last word and it deliberately seeks to keep us weak in relation to the Executive. There is very little we can do to prevent that.
We are bedevilled by the party system of Government. Let us take the example of the Whips. The House would be healthier if they were declared redundant. They serve no useful purpose. A voluntary night watchman could do the job just as effectively. There are people of sufficiently strong dedication to take no notice of Whips. Increasingly in my time here I have seen Members say "To Hell with you; I will vote as I think fit".
1003 The House would be better off if more Members took that view, if there were more free votes and if there were a greater defiance of Whips. More unpredictable results would lead to a healthier debating atmosphere. We have seen the Chief Whip appear on television appealing to a hon. Member who has been missing for months: "Come back, we need your vote." The quality of the debate does not matter so long as the hon. Member comes in to vote!
§ Mr. Marten
Does not the hon. Member agree that one of the most spurious arguments is that a Government Member voting against the Government might risk bringing that Administration down? Would it not be a good convention that we should have many more free votes, but that a Government would be brought down or would have to resign only if they were defeated on an overall motion of censure, or on a motion expressing no confidence in their overall policy?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I think that there is something in that. That was precisely what happened when Winston Churchill was beaten on equal pay back in the 1940s. He was beaten in a free vote, but he came back to the House for a vote of confidence and got it. Parliament would be healthier if we proceeded along those lines.
I end where I began. I doubt the value of the exercise on which we are embarked. We have a Procedure Committee and all the machinery that is needed to reform the procedures of the House; only the will of the House is lacking.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)
A great many hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree with the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) in doubting the Government's proposals. If the House genuinely wants to reform its procedures, it already has the power and ability to do so. Reform will be a success only if the radical reexamination that is proposed is done not with the intention of creating a brand new system to make things easier for the Government, but with the intention that the House of Commons shall become a more powerful force over the Executive 1004 than it is or has been under successive Governments.
That becomes all the more important in a parliamentary system which has in effect, though not in theory, almost a unicameral legislature. The House of Commons is so important that its procedures are crucial not only to Members of Parliament, but to the people outside. When I was a new Member I remember Kenneth Pickthorn saying that procedure was the only defence of the ordinary citizen from the arbitrary use of power by the Executive.
There is no point in conducting long arguments about whether Parliament is poorly regarded or well regarded. Parliament has always throughout its history been badly regarded. It is a common illusion to imagine that in some golden age 70 years ago this place was occupied by saints or brilliant geniuses whom we have now lost. Parliament has always been criticised at all stages of its life and no doubt it will go on being criticised. It will continue to be a place in which strong views are held on both sides and where there is strong controversy between Government and Opposition. It will also continue to be a place in which there are certain unwritten conventions which govern much of our conduct.
To give one example, not every Bill which goes through the House is delayed unduly by the Opposition. If the Opposition chose to do so—as they have occasionally—they could delay a mass of legislation. Therefore, in any radical review of the functions of Parliament we have to reconcile the irreconcilable. We have to reconcile the interests of the Government, who have a legitimate interest in getting their business through, with the interests of the Opposition, who seek to frustrate at least part of what the Government have in mind. Time is the only weapon of the Opposition.
§ Mr. Channon
The Opposition have publicity, but in the House the Opposition's only weapon is time.
If our re-examination resulted in much streamlining of our procedures, there would be insufficient time for Parliament, Opposition and Back Benchers. Time is, of course, an imperfect weapon. At the 1005 end of the day the Government will get through the major business they want by taking certain action.
But, again, we have another convention. The Government do not guillotine all the Bills that come forward. We know that Governments are frequently reluctant to guillotine Bills. They sometimes guillotine more than we like, but they do not guillotine them all, so there can be a purpose in the Opposition's making use of the weapon of time.
I suggest to the House that all hon. Members at some period in their lives are likely to be in Government and at other periods in Opposition. It is no part of the duty of the House of Commons to make life easier for the Government. If anything, it is the job of the House of Commons to make life more difficult for the Government. I agree with the Leader of the House that the job of the Government is already much easier than is the job of the Opposition. The Government have more briefing and research facilities. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) said, it is much easier to answer than to ask questions.
I am sure that many hon. Members will agree that Question Time has lost a great deal of its old force and power and that Ministers are not tackled in the way they used to be. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) referred to the use of the second supplementary question. Any Minister can flannel one supplementary. If a Member bangs on with the same specific point again and again, sometimes the ministerial armour is pierced and dented. It is impossible to do it otherwise. Ministers—both Conservative and Labour—get away with murder at Question Time, and it always will be so unless we can bring back some life to Question Time.
We delude ourselves if we imagine that because Parliament sits more frequently, it is thereby the more effective. Parliaments sits far too much. It sits at the wrong time of the day and at the wrong time of the year. As Britain has fewer responsibilities in the world, as we dwindle in importance as a country, Parliament sits more frequently and we pass more legislation. There is a paradox there that has not been fully explained.
1006 As the right hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving) said, it is ridiculous that there should be 2,300 pages of legislation in a parliamentary year. There is virtual unanimity on the Opposition Benches, and I expect a great deal of agreement on the Government Benches, that one of the main tasks of the proposed Committee is to consider whether we need so much legislation as we have at present. Although the legislative programme has been examined in the past by Committees, it needs more attention. The idea of a pre-legislation Committee is extremely important, but we must also examine how our Standing Committees operate.
The way in which we subject Bills to detailed examination in Standing Committee is nonsensical. When I was a Minister I served on a Committee which lasted for longer than any Committee in the history of the House of Commons. We spent hours and hours going through the Bill and the Committee did not achieve a satisfactory result. Admittedly, it would have been impossible to get agreement, because the two sides of the House were in disagreement about the principles.
If there are to be radical changes, we need a radical change in the way in which we conduct the Committee stage. It would be far better for all Bills to go to a Select Committee rather than a Standing Committee. If that were done, the Report stage of Bills would be all the more important. In a parliamentary democracy there is no prospect of effective control if scrutiny of the Report stage of a Bill is taken away from the House.
We have the nonsensical system that no one has the faintest idea what we shall he debating tomorrow week. It is in fact arranged, although there are changes from time to time. Those in the know are aware of what we shall debate next week. Why cannot Members of Parliament be given at least a fortnight's notice of what is due to be debated? It would make the lives of hon. Members—particularly London Members—who have so many conflicting engagements in their constituencies much easier if they had some certainty of what was going on. We need certainty about the dates of the recesses and about the times we sit. It is ridiculous that we have no idea whether 1007 we shall rise in July or continue until 20th August. That, too, should be examined.
Any Committee that considers these problems must get down to the basic problem of changing the financial year. We shall not get a proper reform of the parliamentary timetable unless we reform the financial year. Select Committees have tried to do this in the past, but they have not succeeded. We shall not get a worthwhile reform of the House of Commons unless we get far better control of expenditure. The single greatest weakness of the House of Commons is its control over Government expenditure. I have no easy solutions to offer. Much good work is done by Select Committees. But our constituents regard our failure to control Government spending as one of the greatest weaknesses of the House.
We must also create conditions that do not deter good people from coming to work here. The quality of parliamentary democracy depends on our attracting the best people from all walks of life. Far too many people outside think that our procedures are mad, with all-night sittings and amendments being tabled too late for proper consideration. The Leader of the House will remember what happened on the Community Land Bill and a Finance Bill in his period of office, and I am sure that the same could be said of all Governments. We must create conditions in which people believe that they can make a worthwhile contribution to democracy by becoming Members of Parliament.
Of course life here will not always be easy. We shall have to sit from time to time all night, but at least there should be some logic that people outside can understand. The purpose of procedure is to enable the House to exercise its parliamentary functions efficiently and sensibly. There is no point in change for the sake of change.
We shall not get far if we think that a radical review will produce miracles. I doubt whether miraculous solutions are available. But if there is to be a review—it is worth doing at least—the Government must be under no illusion that its purpose is merely to facilitate the progress of Government business. It is to exercise Parliament's proper control of the Executive more efficiently. That is the major reform required and that is 1008 the major matter to which I hope the Committee will address itself.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)
If honourable Members abstain or vote against the Government on a particular issue and the Government are defeated, the prospect of the General Election is often held over their heads like the sword of Damocles. I am fed up with hearing this ever since I have been in the House, particularly when Governments have only small majorities. When they have large majorities, other pressures are applied.
One suggestion is that only a defeat on a vote of confidence should merit a General Election, but I would propose instead that every Parliament should last for a fixed period of four years. Then the Whips and the Government could struggle for our votes and would have to convince us every time, instead of simply appealing to hon. Members for the sake of the party, especially if something were in the manifesto. If it is not in the manifesto, pressure is still applied.
§ Mr. Marten
I cannot quite see the difference between my suggestion that the Government should go to the country only after an overall defeat and the hon. Member's proposition. I cited the Second Reading of the European Communities Bill in February 1972 when, in the final minutes of his winding-up speech, the then Prime Minister said that unless the Bill was passed, the Government would not survive. It was wrong to say that on an individual Bill which could have been scrapped without any danger. A General Election could have arisen only on an overall vote of confidence.
§ Mr. Heffer
I do not want to debate a particular Bill. My reason for preferring my own suggestion is the rôle of the Press. When a Government are defeated on a major issue, they can immediately become the subject of a Press campaign. The bandwagon begins to roll and a General Election can happen without the Government or the House wishing it. I have seen such bandwagons. Because of a Press campaign, a Prime Minister has said "I must go to the country because that is what the people demand." If we had a fixed Parliament, that would not be possible and the position of Back Benchers would be much more important.
We should then all have to be convinced on the issues and our votes would 1009 mean something. We should not be regimented by the Whips—darlings though they are. I do not share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) of the Whips. I usually take very little notice of them, but they are agreeable people and I have no wish to attack them.
We could have much better hours. Soon after I came to the House, before which I had worked in the shipyards, starting at 7.30 in the morning, I was put on the Select Committee on Procedure and I suggested that we meet at 9 a.m. I was told that that was impossible, that we could not start at 9 a.m. I said that millions of people started a lot earlier and that I had been one of them. I was told that many hon. Members did not come to the House in the mornings because they had outside interests. I could not believe that that was a serious argument. But there was a much more important one, I was told. What about the Ministers? I would accept that argument if all Ministers were here all the time, but of course they are not. They could not possibly be. They have to be paired, as it is, to do their work.
I suggest that we start at 9 a.m. with Question Time. We could then finish at about 7 p.m., which would still be a fairly long day, and we should continue beyond that time only in special circumstances. We should have to be very careful about that. As a result, we should have to cut down the length of the recesses. I do not want to be away from the House for nearly three months in the summer. I should much prefer to cut down a few of the late nights and be here during the day in the summer.
We should have to abolish the concept of the annual Session. It is ridiculous that a Bill that is not completed at the end of a Session falls and has to start all over again. I argue that we should have periods of a Parliament and that a Bill could continue from one Session to another, rather than the situation that we have today.
There should also be agreed timetables on all our legislation. I know that this goes against the argument of those hon. Members who say that the Opposition's only weapon is time. I have heard that argument ever since I first came to the House.
1010 But on all controversial Bills there is always a timetable and guillotine motion. That applies to all Bills of a serious nature other than constitutional Bills. Certainly those should be exempted, because they have to be discussed at considerable length. They change the very constitution, after all. But I argue that there should be an agreed timetable on all other Bills.
Then I ask why we still refuse to face up to the other place. Is it not time that it was examined in great detail, with a view not to strengthening it, as was the suggestion before, but to getting rid of a non-elected undemocratic body which should have been got rid of a long time ago? That is another matter which should be considered.
The final matter on which I touch is the suggestion that we have outside people on the Committee. I do not know whether my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench are aware of it, but some of our trade union leaders have the funniest ideas about what happens in this place. Some of them share my political view on most issues. But I heard one of them say on one occasion that a Member of Parliament should be their street shop steward. I had to tell him that I was and that the other Members of Parliament were. What does he think we do with all the corespondence? What does he think we do at weekends, apart from going round and talking to our constituents and helping them with their problems? As a matter of fact, some of us are closer to the people in our localities than are some trade union leaders—with all respect to them.
As for business men telling us how to run this House, some of them—in fact, most of them—cannot run their own companies. That is one of the problems that we now face. I do not want to take advice from business men about the procedures of this House.
The answers must lie in this House. We have to answer these problems. We need a radical change in procedure if we are to maintain parliamentary democracy and extend and develop it. This House of Commons must be in line with the spirit of the age.
It has changed in the past. It has always had to change. Usually it has changed later, under pressure. There is nothing wrong with that. It is right that 1011 people outside should focus their attention on Parliament to get it to change in line with what they want. It is better that it is done that way rather than people from on top deciding what should be done, which may be out of line with what people in the country want. That is a very important consideration. Certainly we need radical change, but in changing let us not undermine the very basis of our parliamentary democracy.
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Mr. John Davies (Knutsford)
I make no apology for dealing primarily with the structure which has been set up in the House to face what my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) rightly called the growing burden of work arising from European legislation. I do so for another reason.
Reference has been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House to the enormous advantages in our present complex conditions of some kind of pre-legislative procedure for the examination of Bills. The structure for European legislation has been designed to attain precisely that objective. Whether or not we agree with the form of European legislation, the truth is that it is not subject to the normal parliamentary procedures for domestic legislation to which we are all so attuned. Therefore, it has required an alternative approach, which has been to create a pre-legislative procedure, and the ridiculously titled Select Committee on European Secondary Legislation is just such a pre-legislative scrutiny committee. I commend it as an example and perhaps an embryo from which other procedures will arise in due course.
The Lord President referred to the Early-Day Motion on European legislation tabled by me and a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. We by no means sought in that motion to give the impression of an intemperate explosion of petulance. That was not our intention. The problem is that if in such a pre-legislative system the only real influence which can be brought to bear on the Government is by the expression of the views of this House, it is necessary that the views of this House be expressed in an effective way at a proper time and with a due interval for reflection and action. It is for that reason that hon. Members who have considered these 1012 matters in great depth support the motion, believing that such is not the case today.
The Lord President, correctly in my view, took credit for the Government that the scrutiny procedures which have been produced are now effective. They went through a difficult original phase, but in my view they are now more effective than those anywhere else in the Community. Some of us had the opportunity recently of voyaging to see how other Parliaments did it. It may be that we are a little prejudiced, but our experience was that the extent and determination of examination was greater here than it was elsewhere.
In my view the Leader of the House wrongly associated with that scrutiny procedure the consideration of the House. Whatever the rights or wrongs of what I say about the scrutiny procedure itself, the consideration of the House of this legislation has been totally inadequate. It is that point which has to be put straight if we are to do what is incumbent upon us to do.
It is understanddable that the Lord President will say that he does not want to see the sword arm of the Government vitiated in their negotiations with the Community. But there is no answer in saying, "On that account I should prefer not to hear Parliament." If that were the case, the Executive would wish to say that about every measure in which it was involved. It must hear Parliament and it must hear it at the proper time and with due regard to the seriousness of the issues.
In the present Session there has been only one debate on the Floor of the House concerned with European secondary legislation. It took place one evening during the period between eleven o'clock and half-past twelve. I make no objection to that. I have no objection to late hours. It occupied itself with the question of the fat content of full cream milk, which, no doubt, is an important subject. However, there are outstanding no fewer than 15 substantial proposals which have been recommended over months and, in some cases, over years for consideration by this House and which have not yet been considered.
There are matters such as the harmonisation of VAT taxation, excise taxation, commercial vehicle taxation, including the 1013 subject of vehicle driving licences, the future of the aircraft industry and the Community policy towards it. I could continue, but I shall not do so. There has been a great build-up of issues of primary importance awaiting debate and just this conveyance of an influence upon the Government and they have been apparently totally ignored.
It is also wrong for the Government to take the view in relation to not only the structure of European legislation but its general purpose that it is in the Government's interest and desirable to hold the House at arm's length until at the last minute condescendingly they allow a subject to he discussed, or a consultation upon it to take place, saying "We will listen to you, but then we are off to do what we intended to do." That is undesirable and is not the purpose for which we rightly regard Parliament.
Although I take the problems of an Executive fully into account and share some of their anxieties about trying not to commit themselves before the action that they must take, their purpose is just as strongly to ensure that this body of men and women concur with what they do, or at least have an opportunity of expressing disagreement and being overruled. That is the essential question to which I attach enormous importance and to which the Government have not given sufficient attention.
Admittedly, I have a somewhat unusual and singular experience of Parliament. Such as it is, it leads me to the clear conclusion that to put on a Committee of review people from outside Parliament would be unwise in the extreme. The truth is that the activities of Parliament cannot be conveyed in written messages about our procedure. There is a certain informality and degree of intimacy, even in Opposition, in this Parliament which is of immense importance in relation to its work.
I speak with great feeling about this because I have had the experience of being plunged into the depths of this Parliament rather unexpectedly and inexpediently. To try to explain that informality and intimacy without subjecting those people to that experience would be wholly ineffective. If it is wholly ineffective, they will be, too. On these 1014 Benches I meet enough trade union officials of competence, doctors of competence, lawyers of great eminence and even business men who occasionally manage to run their businesses correctly—
§ Mr. Davies
Even farmers. Therefore, I see no purpose in bringing in outsiders. It would be perfectly practicable, within the membership of this House, to find people with experience of its ardours who could give proper advice to the Government and to the House about how in future Parliament might improve itself.
§ 6.4 p.m.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
In the discussion so far I have detected only one point where there was considerable political content. It was in the speeches of hon. Members who said that part of the reform that is needed is a reduction in the amount of legislation. I know that many hon. Members have strong views about that, but I beg them not to press that point as one which should be examined by the proposed Committee and not to have it at the forefront of their minds when considering reform of procedure.
The fact is that it is not only this Parliament under a Labour Government which is experiencing a huge increase in the amount of legislation. It is happening in all legislatures throughout the free world. If people were to look at the amount of legislation that goes through Congress in Washington, they would be less struck by the uniqueness of our situation. There is a great deal of agreement across the House about what needs to be done to change our procedure, but if this item were to be given to the Committee it would provoke disagreement between people who otherwise could broadly agree.
It was just before the last war that Christopher Hollis wrote his book "Can Parliament Survive?" I always regarded is as a silly title because there is never any doubt in Britain about whether an institution will survive. It stays on the shelf long after it has ceased to operate. The real question is, can Parliament 1015 work? It is a question to which we should direct our attention.
The House of Commons at present does not work and it seriously fails the nation in the discharge of its functions. However, the changes that are needed to remedy that situation, although important, are surprisingly modest. That is just as well, because there are very few occasions when a country is not prepared to rewrite substantially its constitution or its constitutional habits. The French were prepared to do so in 1968, but we are not in that kind of situation. We shall not get fundamental or far-reaching changes in our habits and we should content ourselves with more modest changes.
I welcome the proposal to set up the Committee. However, I express three cautionary thoughts. First, if the Committee embarks on a study which is too fundamental it will be in danger of never coming up with practical proposals, or, at least, with practical proposals which any House of Commons is likely to accept.
Secondly, I hope that we can leave the future of the House of Lords right out of the discussion. Whatever is wrong with the House of Lords is as nothing compared with what is wrong with this place and it matters a lot less. We can have a working democracy even with their hereditary Lordships along the Corridor, but we cannot have a properly responsive democracy if we carry on with our habits in this place. If the Committee were to go into that subject, it would never come up with what is needed for this place.
Thirdly, although I understand why my right hon. Friend the Lord President wants to have outside people on the Committee, I strongly oppose the suggestion. The intervention of the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) on that point will be taken as persuasive, given his particular background. No doubt the idea is that we should have representatives of the TUC, the CBI and one or two other bodies. However, we should presumably decide that in principle before we knew who they would be. One representative might do a good job but another might be a dead loss. We should not know before we took the decision in principle which kind of person we would get.
1016 My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) hinted at another consideration. The CBI and the TUC are both accustomed to dealing with the Government. They have direct links to the Government which they cherish. They do not pay much attention to this place. The CBI and the TUC do not brief Back Bench Members of this House a great deal because they believe that it would prejudice their links with the Government. Their notion of how Parliament should behave is more likely to be similar to that of the Government—that Members should do what the Government want as quietly as possible—than to the attitude of Bank Bench Members.
§ Mr. Hooley
I share my hon. Friend's dislike of the CBI-TUC merry-go-round. Is it beyond the imagination of the House that in this country are distinguished scientists, engineers and even philosophers—men of considerable distinction and independent mind—who could contribute something of value to the proposed Committee and who would not be conditioned, as my hon. Friend and I and all hon. Members are—
§ Mr. Cunningham
I do not feel conditioned by the traditions of this place. I do not believe that, in my five years' membership, I have come to regard them with any greater affection than when I first came here. I still think that this place is the most inefficient joint I have ever operated in, and I am fairly clear in my mind about what needs to be done to change it.
The Lord President said that there had been a number of little Committees recently—for example, the one on the kitchen and what-not—to which outsiders had been appointed. At least two, if not all, are not Committees of the House. One was the Kitchen Committee appointed by the Lord President, not set up by the House. The other was the so-called Compton Committee—the first one—chaired by Sir Edmund Compton, who was given that function by Mr. Speaker, not by the House. That Committee, like the Speaker's Conference, was set up by Mr. Speaker, not by this House.
1017 I disagree slightly with the emphasis expressed by some hon. Members that, if we get the procedures changed, somehow the balance between the Government and non-ministerial Members will change. There is nothing wrong with this place which Members cannot put right if they want to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) complained about the Select Committee procedure and the Lord Privy Seal. That is a failure of the House, not of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is not open to any criticism whatsoever in that respect. If the Committee has not the guts to put the Report before the House and the House has not the guts to pass it, the Prime Minister cannot be blamed for not falling in with an instruction on which he has not been given.
Non-ministerial Members are given one thing and one thing alone by the electorate—the vote in this place. It is all that we have, but it is all that we need, except the will to use it. When we get that, all will come right, including procedural points.
We ought frankly to recognise that there are 635 Members of this House—perhaps I should say 634, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in deference only to the Chair—who wish to be Ministers. For practical purposes there are no exceptions. Because hon. Members wish to be Ministers, they tend to behave in the manner which they think is likely to make them Ministers.
§ Mr. Cunningham
I hope that I am not speaking for myself, but I have been remarkably unsuccessful in my tactics. It would be useful to accept that the job and rôle of a Minister is totally different from that of a non-ministerial Member. While a Member is not a Minister he has a certain way to behave which is not only his right but his duty. If he becomes a Minister he behaves in a different way because he performs a different rôle. If that were accepted, the will on the part of Back Benchers to oppose their own side when they saw the need to do so might be improved. I should like to see a change of attitude of that kind. Without it, none of our procedural changes will make any difference whatsoever.
1018 We must get to a situation where Members are more prepared to vote against their own side. At the moment that happens so infrequently that when a Member tries to get together a group to do that and to get his way, the response is utterly negative. It is so unusual for a Government to be defeated that Members regard it as not worth while engaging in such a move. If it were more common—but not terribly common—Members would more frequently try to get numbers of Members together to carry the day. The effect would be that the Government would have to pay greater attention to the views of Back Benchers.
I should like the new Committee to look into two procedural changes. One concerns the procedure in Standing Committee for the examination of legislation. The weak point in our process is in Standing Committees as they operate now. After all, that is the stage at which a Bill should be examined in detail. Yet the actual form of consideration is severely limited to the form of debate used on the Floor of the House.
It is a useful for Members to be able to speak more than once on a Question, but that is the only difference in procedure between a Standing Committee and the Floor of the Chamber. How often in Standing Committee have we all wanted an answer which we knew that the civil servants in the corner of the room had at their fingertips? But to get that information from the vast expertise of the civil servants into the vast ignorance of Back Benchers, through the narrow chicane of the Minister's mind, or the even narrower one of the Minister's brief, is extremely difficult. If it had not been inherited, no one would invent such a system.
This does not need a radical change. All that is needed is for Standing Committees to be authorised to meet in Select Committee form for a limited period—it would have to be limited or it would go on for ever—before proceeding to the normal Standing Committee stage. A Committee would be able to summon the Minister and the civil servants, and others if there were time to do so, to investigate why a Bill had been drawn up in a particular way, and to elucidate what seemed to be the most important and questionable parts of the Bill, before proceeding to the normal procedure in Standing Committee.
§ Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)
I have heard this proposal several times before and I have a good deal of sympathy with it. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that his example of suddenly finding himself in a Standing Committee and being unable to get certain information from the civil servants is more likely to occur not in the pre-legislative stage when discussing general principles but in the middle of a Clause "stand part" debate in Standing Committee? Therefore, I am not convinced that this pre-legislation form of Select Committee would be satisfactory. Does my hon. Friend envisage any greater degree of flexibility which would help in that respect?
§ Mr. Cunningham
Perhaps the point to which I am about to come will help to answer my hon. Friend's question. I should like to see a considerable change in the Select Committee system to enable more pre-legislation work to he done. Whatever we do with Select Committees, we ought to stick to the Standing Committee structure regarding the consideration of Bills but we should give Standing Committees this extra degree of flexibility for an investigatory stage.
Secondly, I should like the structure of our Select Committees to be examined. At the moment it is a total hotchpotch. Some Select Committees are subject Committees—for example, the Select Committee on Overseas Development. Other Select Committees are functional—for example, the Public Accounts Committee—and cover policy but have only one function in relation to it. Some Select Committees—for example, the European and Expenditure Committees—are limited in function. The Expenditure Committee, for example, has Sub-Committees which adopt policy areas.
The right hon. Gentleman suggested that the European Committee might have Sub-Committees covering particular policy areas. We would therefore have the Expenditure Committee divided into subject Sub-Committees and the European Committee divided into subject Sub-Committees and—who knows?—perhaps the Public Accounts Committee will get round to this too and we shall be accepting a degree of specialism in subjects but not taking it that little bit further to make sense of it. What 1020 we require surely is obvious, and what we have been moving towards is obvious. We have been moving to but have not quite reached a comprehensive system of subject Committees, either one for each Government Department or defining them in some other way, so that we would have the whole area of policy covered by one, and not more than one, subject Committee.
The result of what we do is that nobody knows who has responsibility for doing what. We have three Committees which can dabble in the overseas aid programme. The Expenditure Committee's Sub-Committee on Defence and Foreign Affairs is supposed to look at its expenditure proposals but it never does anything of the sort. We have the PAC which looks at what has been spent in the past, and the Select Committee on Overseas Development which for the most part goes in for quasi-academic studies which it should leave to the academics who can do it better. The result is that the House can never say, if a bodge is made in overseas aid, "You are more responsible than the rest of us for it".
People hold up their hands in horror and say "You do not want us to go to the American system, do you?" The answer is "No". We are not in danger of going anywhere near the American system. It is always the case in this country that, if one proposes a slight shift from one end of the spectrum to somewhere in the middle, one is accused of wanting to go to the other end of the spectrum.
There is no danger in this place that there would have to be a rule that Bills must pass the Committee or else they would not be looked at on the Floor of the House. We are not going to have Committees usurping the functions of the House. What we want are Committees which can investigate either proposed legislation, which they could do, or a general subject, and sometimes look at subjects generally and sometimes look at detailed subjects. Sometimes they would carry out the investigatory process which one connects with Congressional habits in Washington. This would not be a radical change. It would be in line with the development which has been taking place in the House over the decades. 1021 We need to move only that little bit further, and that would hugely improve our habits here.
Finally I propose to say something about Chamber time, because some people seem to think that we are short of time in Parliament. I have never accepted that argument. We waste most of the time in the Chamber doing things which could well be done upstairs in Committee. Adjournment debates—not an Adjournment debate like the one today, but the normal Adjournment debate at the end of the day—could be taken upstairs. Consolidated Fund Bill debates, which are effectively a long string of Adjournment debates, could be dealt with simultaneously in a number of rooms upstairs. There are other uses of the Chamber which could be transferred elsewhere. I do not think that we are short of the amount of Chamber time that we need for things that can be done only in the Chamber.
Those are the kinds of reforms—commonsensical, not very radical, and in line with our present rules and procedures—which I hope the new Committee will recommend. If it does, and if we accept the changes, the House of Commons may begin to serve the nation as it should and receive the respect which it does not receive and does not deserve to receive at present.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)
I find myself in sympathy with the general scepticism—not universal—that has been expressed towards the prospects for this "radical review of our procedure and practice" that has been proposed this afternoon by the Lord President of the Council. Indeed, so general has been the assumption that any change in our procedures and practice ought to be to strengthen the House of Commons as against the Executive that I am surprised that no one has yet examined the credentials of the Greeks who have borne these gifts.
I mean no personal criticism of the right hon. Gentleman speaking as Leader of the House, but he is a senior member of the Government. He would not come before the House—he would not be allowed by his colleagues to come before the House—if it were supposed that the effect of what he is proposing, and what 1022 he evidently intends to get his way with more or less as he outlined it this afternoon, were to be to make the task of government more difficult or assist the House, if not to impede the Administration, at any rate to call it to account. We ought therefore to remember that what we are presented with is not prima facie something that is likely to achieve the general wish, namely, to strengthen the relative powers of Parliament as against the Executive.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Privy Council Office (Mr. William Price)
That may or may not be true, but presumably my right hon. Friend could get his way only if he could get a majority of hon. Members to support him.
§ Mr. Powell
There has been a good deal of comment on that—some of it well founded on experience—already in this debate.
The proposal for a radical review of our procedure is, if not a hardy annual, a hardy decennial. It has tended to happen in the past when there has been a big change in the party composition of the House and when, therefore, a relatively large proportion of the House was initially not long acquainted with the atmosphere as well as with the proceedings of the House and with that difference between the appearance and the reality, which is a characteristic of this institution, as it is of others.
I think that that was the nature of the Crossman reforms in 1966 which were promoted against the background of a big turnover in the personnel of the House of Commons and which, with some exceptions—I shall touch on one reason presently—came, I would say, to very little. I say that with great respect to the memory of Richard Crossman himself and to his character as a parliamentarian.
I think that the uneasy background to this proposal is not of that kind. I think that it arises out of a sense of frustration not over the working of an all-powerful Assembly but over the impotence of an Assembly which we believe used to be and we believe ought to be sovereign. I venture once again to pronounce that word "sovereign", which, after being under a cloud for two or three years, it is again 1023 permissible, and even laudable, to apply to this Chamber without too great dissent being evoked.
Indeed, it is ironic that we should be having this debate, and that this phase of uneasiness should have occurred, just when the House has solemnly renounced its exclusive and overriding power to control taxation, legislation and policy. Whether that is right or wrong, desirable or undesirable, this debate about our procedures and practice is being conducted against a different constitutional background from that of 10 years ago.
The power of this House has always consisted, and must by nature consist, in vote after debate. Vote alone is potent, but with respect to the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton)—and I agreed with much of his analysis—mere vote upon a Question proposed at half-past three in the afternoon, because the matter has been considered by a Committee, is not an effective method of discharging the control and power of the House. It is the combination of debate and vote wherein that power lies. It is that combination which exposes an Administration to the necessity of making sense for six, eight or 10 hours on end, and the necessity of having a majority in its Lobby for a precise proposition at the end of that period. There is no substitute in parliamentary control for debate and vote.
From that I deduce that whatever other parts of our procedure do not lead to debate and vote, or are not capable of being made to lead to that conclusion, take us away from our objective rather than towards it. It is in that light that we must judge the use of Committees and the use of time.
Time is the instrument not only of Opposition but of the House of Commons. If parliamentary time is fixed, the Administration always wins; if it is never fixed, the Administration never wins. Therefore, we have to have an infinitely variable mixture between limitation on time and unlimited time. It is our power and ability to take a course between those two extremes which gives us real debating and voting power in this Chamber.
The weakness of the proposal for morning sittings was not—and I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, 1024 Walton (Mr. Heffer)—that morning hours are rather early for some, nor that many of us have other things to do which must be done in the morning, nor that Ministers have Cabinets on Tuesdays and Thursdays—
§ Mr. Powell
No. I shall explain the real reason to the hon. Gentleman. He did not experience it as some of us did. In the end we have to come to a vote. Unless there is to be a perpetual guillotine, a matter will be debated for as long as the House is prepared to debate it. Matters are not debated to exhaustion, but we all understand that in this House the physical struggle between Government and their critics is part of the process of debate. All that happens with morning sittings is that we start early and continue until the same time at night.
§ Mr. Powell
I will give the answer. It is connected with the point over which the hon. Member for Walton stumbled. The hon. Gentleman asked for an 8 o'clock Standing Order, as now we have a 10 o'clock Standing Order. I suppose the hon. Gentleman might as well have a 6 o'clock Standing Order if he wanted to start at 7 o'clock in the morning. However, to be effective, the Government will always need to be in a position to suspend the Standing Order so as to enable much of the most important business to take place not under the sanction of a fixed hour, at which we go home having either done no business or been forced to come to a conclusion, but by the continuing process of debate, one side against the other. It is that process which enables matters to be thrashed out, not perfectly or entirely perhaps, but much further than can possibly happen under the regime of a fixed time.
It is the limitation not of the daily timetable but of the number of debating days in the year which constitutes the limitation upon that great and increasing penumbra of institutions which is growing up round the Chamber. Members of Parliament and the public often draw attention, in terms of ridicule, to the fact that when debating the Reports of the Expenditure Committee, for example, or 1025 a motion such as this upon the Adjournment—although the Chamber has been relatively well filled this afternoon—the House is strangely languid. The explanation is that when those Reports come before the House they do not do so in debates where the spear-point will be a Division in which the career of a Minister and the fortunes of the Executive will be at stake. They come before the House reluctantly, as time can be found, simply because we have the Committees and it would be too disgraceful and inexplicable if we did not sometimes take notice of them upon the Floor of the House.
So I arrive at the proposition that if we increase Committees beyond the point at which their results will be brought back to the Chamber not for review but for debate and Division upon matters of controversy, we are to that extent diverting the effort and attention of hon. Members from what actually matters.
Perhaps it is at this point that I should refer to information, to the notion that we are living in an age of great complexity and technological and scientific knowledge in which hon. Members are helpless to do their job unless they have spent hours and hours in Committee listening to the experts. I believe there is no substance in that notion. Indeed, I believe it is dangerously misguided.
The function of the House on behalf of the people is to make the Government explain what they are doing, why they are doing it, and why it makes sense in terms that we and those outside can understand. In undertaking that task, a fairly cute knowledge of what things are all about may be of some assistance; but the fact remains that it is the power to confront the Government with their own words which is the clinching argument in the House. When people ask for more information, more research services, more assistance in the Library, I am inclined to retort "Have you not noticed that there is an index to Hansard?" There is far more to be found in the Hansard index, in previous debates and in answers to Written Questions, that is of use in confronting the Executive than will ever be found in the voluminous proceedings—I am not criticising those who take part in them—of investigatory Committees.
§ Mr. William Hamilton
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me how we can extract from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, for instance, the part that he played in Chrysler other than in deep examination by means of a Select Committee, which cannot be done on the Floor of the House?
§ Mr. Powell
I think that the hon. Gentleman answered his own question quite plainly in his speech. He pointed out that it is only by means of a motion made in the House that we have an opportunity—
§ Mr. Powell
First, it would have to be on the Floor of the House. If Her Majesty's Opposition, who made such a display of indignation about the issue, had been prepared to use their rights as an Opposition, we would have had a debate before now.
I revert to my earlier remark, that by our own decision the House is no longer, as it was up to three or four years ago, sovereign as a legislature and sovereign in control of taxation and expenditure. I speak with special reference to the speech made by the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies). There was a significant verbal point in his speech which, in a way, echoed a verbal point in the speech of the Leader of the House. The right hon. Member for Knutsford said that if we were able to bring the matters which had gone through his Committee to the Floor of the House, it would be possible for the House to make decisions on them—and then he thought better of it and added "or at any rate to make its influence felt".
I noticed that the Leader of the House in this context, and indeed in many other contexts in his speech, spoke of the effect or influence of the House and not of its decision. Sovereignty—power—is about deciding. It is not about consultation. It is not about being allowed to talk to people who then go away, having said that they have been glad to take account of what one has said. It is about voting or at least about the fact that when a proposition is put before the House it is not taken by one side or the other to a vote.
We are here in an irresolvable dilemma. If the House takes the advice of the hon. 1027 Member for Fife, Central and insists that matters processed by Committees come to the Floor in the form of a motion that has to be voted on—
§ Mr. Powell
—and amended, as the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) says—which, however, points to a whole excursus into which I shall not enter—we have to face the fact that the House might take a decision different from that which the Government considered implicit in our being a working partner in the EEC. The Leader of the House hinted at this when he said that the Government must not be prevented from carrying out their rôle of negotiating inside the Council of Ministers. So there is a dilemma we cannot wish away. Either this House is able to take decisions on its own view of what should or should not be, or its rôle is reduced to that of a consultative assembly.
We have not, or may not have, reached the end of that road. At the moment the theory is that consent is still given in this House by our ability, whether we choose to use it or not, to criticise Ministers and to vote against them. But if ever there were a separate channel of accountability to the British people for what is done by the EEC, we would not need a radical review or a new Committee to simplify our procedure: it would soon be seen that in all the great mass of miscalled "EEC secondary legislation" this House had become superfluous.
In debating today how we can make the will of the House more effective than it is, we would be unrealistic if we did not face the fact that at present we are, rightly or wrongly, committed to be deprived of the power to do so over an ever-increasing sphere of our national life. That is why I believe that the future of parliamentary institutions in this country is bound up, whether we like it or not, with the question whether Britain is to remain part of the EEC.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)
I have been called to speak after the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) in a number of debates when the House has explicitly debated European Community matters. I am tempted to follow him into the theology of direct elections, but 1028 even with a motion as widely drawn as that for the Adjournment I believe that it would be neither necessary nor appropriate.
I approach this debate, as I suspect many other hon. Members have done, with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I very much understand the frustration of successive Governments and all hon. Members arising from congested timetables, long hours of sitting and seemingly endless, and not always fruitful, debates. On the other hand, the House of Commons should not be considered a mere gentlemen's or gentlewomen's club. We have accepted positions of responsibility vis-à-vis our constituents and we must always be careful in trying to ease our burdens that we do not betray the trust of those who elected us.
If one believes, as I do, that the House of Commons and particularly Back Benchers have a key responsibility in checking, scrutinising and questioning the Government, any procedural change which in any way diminishes the power to carry out that function is a betrayal of the responsibility our constituents have given us.
A debate on procedure is not a neutral or technical matter. It goes to the centre of politics and rights. I am not sure that I would agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) who regards the Standing Orders of the House as the written constitution of the United Kingdom. But the premise of his argument is unassailable. How we decide to take decisions in this House is central to the way in which we as a working democracy operate. Anybody who accepts procedural change lightly makes an important error of judgment.
I turn to the proposals made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I support the proposal for a review of parliamentary procedure, and I am glad that we have had this opportunity to debate my right hon. Friend's proposals while they are still at Green Paper stage rather than before the House on an explicit motion. I have considerable reservations—I know that they are shared by others—about the suggestion that the Committee when set up should contain members who are not Members of the House of Commons. But clearly 1029 my right hon. Friend feels that there are merits in that proposal. He might want to consider whether there is any possibility of having a system comparable to that involving assessors who sit on some Committees in which there is a Civil Service element. I am referring to people from outside who could sit in on a Committee and perhaps take part in examining witnesses. They could also take part in a certain amount of the Committee's deliberations, but they could withdraw when the Committee came to draw up its Report for submission to this House. I am not sure whether that suggestion would help my right hon. Friend, but it might go some way to bringing the so-called fresh minds to bear on the matter.
I hope that when the Committee is set up it will not merely seek to find ways to ease the problems of the Government of the day without taking account of the interests of Back Benchers and of the House as a whole. If we look back over Reports of Committees on Procedure over the past 125 years, we see that there seems to be a certain continuing pattern throughout that period. First, evidence is presented to the Committee by both insiders and outsiders suggesting reforms to smooth the path of the Government and to give Back Benchers more effective and efficient ways of checking the Executive.
Secondly, we come to the stage when a member of the Government, usually in the person of the Leader of the House of the day, appears before the Committee to support proposals to make Government business go more smoothly and to deride proposals to give more power to Back Benchers.
Finally, in most cases over the past 125 years the Procedure Committee has tended to produce a Report that was close to the Government's wishes. After all, the Committee does not want to produce a Report which is likely not to be accepted and which will be rejected out of hand. Thus minor changes are adopted. The reformers cry "Foul", and the Government's position is strengthened. After a few years the argument starts all over again.
§ Mr. Spearing
Is my hon. Friend aware that in the last Session the Select Committee rejected what was more or less a Government request that the Report stage 1030 of Bills should be conducted upstairs, and my right hon. Friend the Lord President announced through another means that there would be yet another Committee?
§ Mr. Roper
On those occasions when the Procedure Committee does not follow the Lord President's advice, perhaps other ways are sought to achieve what he wants.
Although the pattern over 125 years has been as I have described it, over the past dozen years there have certainly been some changes. First there were the so-called Crossman reforms, although their merits were challenged by the right hon. Member for Down, South. Then there was the establishment of the Expenditure Committee, even though that perhaps disappointed those who originally proposed it. Next there was the more recent creation of the Select Committee on European Secondary Legislation. All those things happened because Procedure Committees, or their equivalent, and Governments have become more flexible in their approach to procedural questions. I do not claim that any one of those proposals has been an unqualified success from the point of view of the Government or Back Benchers, but I think that the experience of those developments of the past 12 years has taught us two things.
The first is that Government fears about the damage to our parliamentary system through expansion of Select Committees have been greatly exaggerated. Secondly, we have seen, although perhaps not as much as some would have liked, that Back Benchers are capable of reviewing Government activity in a responsible and constructive manner through Committees. Because we have learned those two lessons in the past 12 years, I am optimistic about the chances of finding reforms that can be to the advantage of both the Government and Back Benchers.
I should like to make a few suggestions about certain possible reforms. As the right hon. Member for Down, South has just said, one of the major needs by which a Government can control Parliament is their control of time. It is normally said that time is the major weapon in the hands of the Opposition but we know that in practice it is fairly ineffective, because if the Opposition try to use up time by long speeches or by prolonging 1031 the Committee stage the Government can arrange for more sittings of the Standing Committee or, in the last resort, introduce the guillotine.
What is perhaps worse is that Government Back Benchers often exclude themselves from debate, whichever party is in power. The Whips ask them to do so in order to expedite the passage of legislation. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have had experience of that. I am sure that to the public it seems very foolish when they see hon. Members sitting upstairs in Committee for hours or days on end saying nothing, not because they have nothing constructive to say but because the Government are worried about time. I do not blame the Government or the Whips. It is simply the procedure which we have all accepted over the years.
It is because time is not a particularly strong weapon in the hands of the minority that we need to consider a series of possible remedies. The first, which has been discussed before and will undoubtedly be discussed again, is the removal of the Report stage from the Floor of the House. I do not think that that would be an impossible solution in all cases. As with Second Readings, the Report stage of measures such as the Reservoirs Bill could usefully be taken upstairs. But there would have to be a careful check to decide which Bills could go upstairs and which should be reserved for the Floor of the House.
Secondly, there is the possibility of the Government's informally or formally arranging a time table for all Bills, not merely those for which a guillotine motion has been moved. That would mean a reconstitution in some form of a Business Committee on most measures. That idea should be seriously considered by the Committee which my right hon. Friend the Lord President has suggested.
A further proposal, one of which I am not yet persuaded but on which supporting evidence can perhaps be adduced, is the idea of giving the Government authority to introduce their programme through broad enabling legislation rather than detailed Bills. One argument for that proposal is that it would save time, but I believe that the remedies I have already suggested would save time without 1032 having the disadvantages of enabling legislation.
One disadvantage is that it would effectively remove the Committee stage analysis of detailed legislation. Here I must deal with the misleading academic analysis of Committee stages which has recently appeared. It has been suggested—I think by Professor Griffiths of the London School of Economics—that Back-Bench amendments are rarely successful. However, it is not the number of times that Back Benchers or the Opposition manage to defeat the Government in Standing Committee that measures the effectiveness of Back-Bench or Opposition debate. As hon. Members are aware, although learned professors are not, what happens in Standing Committee is that flaws in Bills are identified and Ministers and their officials are eventually persuaded that changes are needed. Very often these are not made at the time, but Ministers give assurances that they will introduce Government amendments on Report or in another place.
The statistical analysis by academics of the effectiveness of Standing Committees is rather misguided. I trust that no academic who thinks in that way will serve on the proposed Committee, because it is not an ability to count amendments but a feel for what happens in a Standing Committee which should qualify a person to make decisions about the future.
If the House accepts that constraints on time should be set, so that the flow of Government legislation can be eased, it must also be accepted that Back Benchers must be given tools to facilitate their task, particularly that of scrutinising the work of the Government of the day. A timetable rule would strengthen the right of the majority to rule. An expanded and more firmly entrenched Committee system would protect the rights of the minority and Back Benchers.
When I say "Committee system" I refer to the sort of system described by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), a development of Select Committees, although I believe that more time and attention should be given to the inter-relationship between Select Committees and Standing Committees. The idea of bringing Select Committees into the perusal 1033 of legislation is nothing new. It was Erskine May, speaking to the Procedure Committee in 1854, who first suggested that Select Committees should consider legislation before it went to a Standing Committee.
We should also see whether, as was suggested in the debate on European secondary legislation before Christmas, there is not a place for a new type of hybrid Committee, something between a Select Committee and a Standing Committee, which would consider certain kinds of legislation and certainly European secondary legislation.
Some may argue that the creation of the Expenditure Committee and its division into subject Sub-Committees has reduced the need for further Committees. I am afraid that that is not the case. The Expenditure Committee has too closely mirrored the work of the old Estimates Committee. Although I do not blame anyone for this, it does not fulfil the task originally envisaged by many of those who originally argued for its creation It is not enough, as the right hon. Member for Down, South said, merely to create Committees. We need to ensure that their Reports are properly considered and that the Committees are on-going, adequately staffed and have proper access to persons and papers. For example, consideration should be given to a Standing Order laying down that each Select Committee's Report must be scheduled for debate within a fixed period of time after its publication.
There are two other matters I wish to raise, one touching on the issue raised by the right hon. Member for Down, South. It is certainly the case that direct elections to the European Parliament and the fact of directly-elected Members to sub-national Assemblies will have implications for the future working of this House. Secondly, while I trust that the present Administration will continue in office for some considerable time, the possibility is that at some election within the next decade no party in this House will receive a clear majority. Perhaps this will not occur. The development of direct elections to the European Parliament and the election of sub-national Assemblies within the United Kingdom, together with the possibility of there being no party with a majority in this House, 1034 will create a number of new procedural problems.
These matters should be within the ambit of consideration of the Committee which has been proposed today. I have great respect for the traditions and customs of this House. The rules of this House, formal and informal, are among its strength. But the rules, to be effective, must be flexible. I trust that those who examine the procedure of the House will not lose sight of the importance of that flexibility.
§ 7.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
The hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) drew attention to the possibility that we were in for a period in which no one party in the House had an absolute majority. It is therefore truly remarkable that the minority party with most seats in the House, the Liberals, has not been represented to date by one of its Members for one moment, although we are more than halfway through the first full-day debate on the procedure of the House for a long time. That is deplorable, because this is an issue that affects all Members of Parliament as individuals as well as being of importance to the House as a whole.
To date we have tended to consider the control and the monitoring functions of the House in terms of Bills and Statutory Instruments. What was once intended to be a control over public expenditure, Votes on Supply and the Consolidated Fund, has now atrophied to such an extent that if any Member has the temerity to discuss the formal motion on the Order Paper—namely, the Vote before the House—it is considered to be a parliamentary indecency. Yet this is the last vestige of control over expenditure that still exists formally on the Floor of the House.
I wish to mention a fourth form of government over which this House exercises apparently no control or influence whatsoever. Our control over expenditure is so vestigial that it is almost nonexistent. We have discussed the difficulties in the procedure affecting Bills. All I say there is that I would deplore the transference into Committee of the Report stage of Bills. As it is, many hon. Members cannot take part in the Committee stage of Bills, either because 1035 the Committee stage is away from the Floor of the House and they are not a member of the Committee, or because it is being held on the Floor of the House when they are functioning upstairs in a Select or Standing Committee. To remove the Report stage would remove from a large number of Members the ability to monitor and, if necessary, correct the legislative process in so far as it concerns Bills.
I think that I am the only Member of this House who has introduced not one but two Bills aimed at giving the House power to amend Statutory Instruments in certain circumstances. Neither has reached the statute book. I am not without hope that this House may one day enact such a measure because Statutory Instruments—for the moment I leave out those affecting the EEC—originating in the Departments of State in the United Kingdom constitute more law each year than do Bills which subsequently become enacted. Yet this House has no power whatever to amend a single word of a Statutory Instrument.
There is also an increasing tendency in Government legislation to go for the negative resolution procedure rather than the affirmative resolution procedure. There was once a revolt among Back Benchers across the Floor of the House against a measure which the Government of the day were putting forward. I will not name any names, because they do not matter. The Chief Whip at that time came up to the two Tellers and said "I will see that there are no more Prayers in this Session." So much for the only control that Parliament has over negative resolution procedures. It is entirely in the gift of the Government of the day whether to take the necessary action before the 28 days laid down by statute have expired.
If the Leader of the House is serious about wishing Parliament to be more effective, he must ensure that this nettle is grasped. Until we have adopted a procedure which enables the negative resolution method to be effective we should pass new enabling legislation which operates only under the affirmative resolution procedure.
The fourth form of government of which I spoke is government by circular of which Parliament, the Press and the 1036 public are unaware. Despite that, this method produces a compendium of law. For example, I cite the Firearms Bill of 1965. It was a non-controversial measure in party political terms—the sort that would now be consigned to a twilight life in Committee until it saw the statute book. Under that measure the issue of firearm certificates is at the discretion of the chief officer of police in each police area. The citizen who is aggrieved can appeal to the Crown court. Originally it was the magistrates' court.
What Parliament, the Press and the public do not know is that the Home Office sent round a confidential circular instructing chief officers of police on how they were to exercise their power which Parliament had explicitly given to them and not to the Home Office. I say this without prejudice because I do not know which party was in office when the circular was sent round. For the purposes of the argument it is immaterial. Government by circular is even more dangerous than government by Statutory Instrument, because Parliament cannot influence or control that of which it is totally unaware.
Here I dissent from the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), who under-values the process of questioning civil servants. It is only in that process of questioning civil servants in Select Committee that Members often rind out what is happening. Until they know what is happening, Members are not able to question Ministers about it. It is the Select Committees for the first time that have made civil servants answerable to Parliament.
For aeons Ministers have changed frequently between Departments. They do not know the facts about which they are being questioned. They have to waste the time of the House while notes are scribbled out in the Box, while they are carried to the Minister by the Parliamentary Private Secretary, and while the Minister tries to read the civil servant's handwriting. We have all witnessed this farce. It is only by bringing civil servants to account before Select Committees that Parliament can reestablish an effective form of control over policy in the making, expenditure in the spending, and legislation before it is introduced at First Reading.
Even this control lacks the feature of effectiveness if the Report of the Select 1037 Committee is not debated until after the Government of the day, of whatever complexion they may be, have acted and committed expenditure. The Motor Vehicle Report of the Trade and Industry Sub-Committee of the Public Expenditure Committee is a classic. It was published on 12th August. Members on both sides of the House pressed the Government to give their response and to allow time for debate. The answer was "No", repeatedly given until after £162½ million had been committed. Incidentally, it was committed at variance with the recommendations of the Select Committee.
This is an example of a tool which has all the appearances of being effective but which is denied its consummation of coming on to the Floor of the House for debate. These are the various stages, all of which must be consummated, of the instruments we are trying to forge so that Parliament may continue. Like other institutions, Parliament will continue only so long as it is seen to meet real needs.
Some of the difficulties from which we suffer are not for lack of innovation. They arise because we do not even obey our own Standing Orders. For instance, all four Reports of the Select Committee on Procedure which are before the House this very day totally breach Standing Order No. 82. In any one of the four Reports one can look at page after page without knowing who is questioning whom. Standing Order No. 82 says:To every question asked of a witness under examination in the proceedings of a select committee there shall be prefixed in the minutes of evidence the name of the Member asking such question.That could not be clearer. It could not be less ambiguous.
It is sometimes said that authority deserts a dying king. At the consummation of your reign, Mr. Speaker—the conclusion of which comes tomorrow, we hear—it would be a final service to the House if you could instruct that Standing Order No. 82 shall be complied with so that after you have left for other distinguished realms of service the Reports of Select Committee proceedings which come before the House will for the first time for a while become intelligible again.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Even a person on his death bed must be allowed to ask a question. When was this point put to me before?
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
It has not been put to you before, Mr. Speaker. I imply no criticism of the Chair. I merely draw it to the attention of the Chair, as I have before now drawn it to the attention of the Clerks of the Select Committee as a whole Committee rather than as a Sub-Committee. It is a great inconvenience when studying evidence given before a Select Committee if you cannot tell who is asking the questions and who is replying, because there are the names of several witnesses at the head of the sheet and no names before the questions.
§ Mr. Speaker
May I again ask a question? Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that no name is put at the beginning of a series of questions? I am told that the custom has been for about 50 or 60 years to put the name of the Member asking the first question in a series before the first question and then for the series to continue without stating the name again.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
That is what is happening, Mr. Speaker. One can look at page after page without being able to tell who is asking the question. Take, for example, the Report on European Secondary Legislation. One goes to page 36 and one can go back to page 35 and then to page 34 and there is still no indication of who is asking the questions. Then let us take the Report "Restrictions on the Length of Speeches"; one can go to page 3, back to page 2 and there is still no indication of who is asking the questions. Then there is the Report entitled "Calling Amendments for Division at the End of Debate"; at page 16 there is no indication of who is asking the questions. The Standing Order does not say "At the beginning of each series of questions". The Standing Order says:To every question asked of a witness".I cite that as an example of the fact that sometimes we could improve our own procedures merely by seeing that our own Standing Orders are carried out.
We have had a Report from the Select Committee on Procedure about the length of speeches. One of the factors leading to over-long speeches is Members 1039 reading their speeches. We all know this, because a read speech is an inflexible speech, and then a Member wants to add something to it and refer to points which have been raised in the debate, there are interventions in it, and it becomes longer and longer. Page 404 of "Erskine May", under the heading "Reading speeches", says:A Member is not permitted to read his speech".It could not be clearer.
When I took up the matter with your predecessor, Mr. Speaker King, he sent a ruling to me at considerable length—that was his practice; he went into matters raised by Members with great courtesy and at great length—saying that it would now take another resolution of the House to bring that interdiction into effect. This is merely because we do not enforce what is already one of the rules of the House.
A proliferation of Select Committees may solve some problems, but it creates others. The reason the experiment with morning sittings was a failure was not that the entire House was composed of stockbrokers who were down at the Stock Exchange or trade unionists who were at trade union meetings. The reason for the failure of the experiment was that such a high proportion of the Members of the House were on Standing Committees sitting on Bills or on Select Committees, and they could not be on a Standing Committee or a Select Committee upstairs and down here on the Floor of the House questioning Ministers at the same time.
The effect was that Members who were on Select Committees or Standing Committees were deprived of their right to function as Members of Parliament on the Floor of the House. That was why the experiment was a failure and that was why an overwhelming majority of Members thought that the experiment was a failure and should not be repeated.
It is not only Members. It is also the Press reporting our proceedings. Select Committee proceedings and Standing Committee proceedings are public. If the Press is to cover them adequately, there cannot be too many things going on synchronously, or that side breaks down as well.
1040 I want, finally, to say a few words about the apparently alluring desire of the Leader of the House to bring in outside experts as members of the proposed Committee. Anyone who has read the report of the inquiry into the bankruptcy of Rolls-Royce, or anyone who knows what went on in that company, will be aware of the contribution which the firm of experts McKinsey and Partners made to the ruin of Rolls-Royce because they did not understand what was going on inside it. They did not understand the difference between a design team and a development team. They scrambled the two and this led to the most fearful disasters in the development of the RB211 and was one of the factors leading to the bankruptcy of the company.
Let us beware of taking into over-important positions of influence persons or bodies who have inadequate knowledge of that on which they are advising. By all means let Select Committees have specialist advisers—they do—and call witnesses—they do—but that is entirely different from suggesting that the functions of an expert witness should be confused with the function of a member of the Committee. They are different functions importing different aspects of knowledge to the task, and, at the end of the day, one has a responsibility which the other does not have. These are fundamental differences.
As this is the last time I shall be addressing you in the Chair. Mr. Speaker, I should like to pay a word of tribute to the thoroughness and kindness you have shown to hon. Members who have come to you with difficult problems. Instead of regarding them as still one more demand on your time, you have appeared to welcome them. You have shown great courtesy in considering their problems and have applied great wisdom to them. I should like to end my speech on that note.
§ 7.21 p.m.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
The whole House will wish to echo what the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) said at the end of his speech. I do not wish to follow him in his other excursions. Being a member of the Select Committee to which he referred, I thought I was aware of the questions which I had asked. What 1041 is more important is that the people answering the questions should be identical.
In opening the debate my right hon. Friend the Lord President talked about the quality of democracy in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Everybody is aware of the need to maintain the quality of our democracy, and if there is a keynote to this debate that is it. Unfortunately, after my right hon. Friend had said that, I lost contact with him. He went on to talk about effective government, and I feel that effective government and quality of democracy sometimes conflict.
What my right hon. Friend said was not entirely to my taste. He talked about the need for effective government, which I took to mean power untrammelled by the wishes of this House. Government without the brake or accelerator of this House cannot always be effective. Effectiveness of government depends on all sorts of things, not necessarily the activities of this House in braking or giving it a jerk when necessary.
I was surprised to hear my right hon. Friend talk about legislative action by the Government. It is this House alone which legislates. Perhaps my right hon. Friend had forgotten the presence of the Mace which lies right by the Dispatch Box on the Government side. The end of the Mace, originally used to hit people over the head, points towards the Government Benches and is perhaps symbolic of the fact that, while the Executive and the Crown have responsibility and power, that responsibility can be maintained only at the will of the majority of the House.
As the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) pointed out, the power that was the Crown's, in a vacuum before the passing of the European Communities Act, is now added to by the powers of the European Council and Commission. We have a plug-in Executive of the day. There is not only our own Executive, accountable to this House and entirely composed of its Members; there is also the Executive across the water which will become of even greater importance. If we think of the powers of the Executive, the width of the topics of the day with which the Government have to deal, the complexity of the 1042 problems and the speed with which they come upon us, together with the international problems with which Governments have to deal, we can see that the need for Governments to report and to put through legislation is ever pressing and that the pressure of the House is inevitably greater.
We have to see that not only do the Government maintain the confidence of the majority of this House but that the citizens of the United Kingdom retain their confidence in parliamentary government. This will be the next problem in the last quarter of this century. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said in a debate at the end of last year thatbureaucracy today is much more dangerous than autocracy."—[Official Report, 18th December 1972; Vol. 848, c. 1017.]The Executive of the day, which Government are in power, is the source of most of the bureaucracy. I have said in a previous debate that the threat to parliamentary democracy comes not from another place, with Black Rod marching down the Corridor and knocking on a closed door, but from those who come in quietly from behind the Speaker's Chair, go to the Dispatch Box and then equally quietly go out again. We must see that those who are accountable to this House are accountable in the proper sense.
The strains of parliamentary democracy are ever-increasing. The Executive has to get measures through and requires approval or confidence for issues which arrive at express speed. The problems we are facing today, economic and sociological, may be only earth tremors compared to earthquakes to come.
It might be asked why I am making these remarks in relation to a debate on procedure. The reason is that we have this outpouring from the Executive and its requirements on this House in terms of support and whether the way this is dealt with is understood by the public through their direct representatives. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) made a good point when he said that we are in daily touch with the public. The way in which these conflicting forces react is through the procedures of this House. I think of our procedures as being like a number of wheels and clutches, or perhaps rather Heath Robinsonian—some with brakes, 1043 some are hydraulic and some have shock absorbers. The whole thing shudders, carrying the burden of the State along with it.
This House, through the history of this country, is the centre of the United Kingdom. I think it was de Gaulle who said, "L'état, c'est moi".
§ Mr. Spearing
My source was wrong, but I think that the remark applies to this House in terms of the United Kingdom and our traditional form of government. Our procedure is complex and difficult to unravel. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) said that our democracy depends on gossamer threads. So it does and these threads are found in the procedures of this House.
We should try to disentangle some of the valuable comments made today and distinguish between the structure of our procedures and that which is consequential. Central to our procedure are question, debate and resolution. These are historic matters relating to the deliberations of this House. As the right hon. Member for Down, South said, if deliberation is separated from the vote, the accountability of the Executive is immediately reduced. Another fundamental of the question, debate and resolution procedure is that only one question at a time is dealt with. Unlike other places where whole series of amendments are discussed and voted on together, we discuss only one question, in theory at least, in order to ensure that it is properly discussed before legislation on the matter is dismissed. That was the dilemma in which Mr. Speaker was placed on the question of selection of amendments last week.
Having looked at the fundamental structure of question, debate and resolution and other historic customs, such as voting Supply, we should look at other points of concern, including the part played by pre-legislation committees. If we can draw up a map of our procedure in our minds when the Committee is set up, that will be an advantage.
My right hon. Friend could take certain action immediately. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) that 1044 these matters largely depend upon Back Benchers, that it is up to us what we do and what we let the Executive of the day get away with. Many of the measures which the Executive put before us to amend our procedure could back-track on this House very badly.
Take EEC legislation. The Select Committee on Procedure, which does not exist because it has been overtaken by events, presented a Report on EEC legislation which was debated on 3rd November. Many of my hon. Friends were under the impression that the Lord President would put down a motion to implement its proposals. We came along on a Monday evening, very much like today with a thin House, and we learnt from the Lord President that he did not intend to implement the Committee's proposals. We therefore have a system for EEC legislation which is less perfect than it would have been had we adopted the Committee's proposals. I am sorry that on that occasion the Opposition did not do their job.
I believe that we should always try to reach agreement on procedural matters. The test applied by hon. Members should be to consider whether the proposals would work as well for them whether they were in Government or in Opposition. It would be a good thing if Front Benchers did the same.
Let us consider how we deal with Statutory Instruments. Last Session over 70 Statutory Instruments were discussed upstairs in Committee under a procedure which originated in 1972. The reason why so little is known about these proceedings, even though Hansard produces its report of them, is that the Question put to that Committee relates to the fact that it has "considered" the Statutory Instrument in question. That is the wrong Question. The Question should be based on a "take note" motion at the least and ideally relate to a motion of approval. What is worse is that this applies not only to Statutory Instruments but to EEC documents. The whole affair appears back in the House in the form of a motion which must be decided forthwith. No debate is permitted. The trouble is that the consideration of the Statutory Instrument or document is separated from the vote. There is a separation of the 1045 verba and the acta, and when that happens the Government can get away with a great deal.
The original statutory instrument procedure was exempted business. The exemption was given to protect Back Benchers. It is still exempted but must be decided forthwith, and far from protecting Back Benchers, that helps the Government no end. This change has passed mainly unnoticed.
The whole descent of the Statutory Instrument procedure, whether it related to Prayers or Orders dealt with under the affirmative or negative resolution procedures, began in 1951 when the system was abused by the Opposition. When procedures are abused the power of the House diminishes accordingly until, as in this case, we almost lose it.
My right hon. Friend could bring about an improvement in the Order Paper without having to wait for the Committee's Report. I understand that the Order Paper was tidied up about 10 years ago. It was said then that it was a life's study to understand it. It is not easy to understand our agenda even today. It may be necessary to look in three or four places to see what is coming up. I am referring not to the big debates but to the debates on smaller but nevertheless extremely important issues. The debate about EEC milk standards was a good example. An hon. Friend of mine who was interested in the subject asked me when the debate was to take place. I had to tell him that the debate had taken place the previous night. He said that he had not seen it listed in the remaining Orders of the Day. The trouble was that it appeared on the Order Paper only for that day.
We must make sure that the Order Paper contains sufficient information about matters which will be coming up for debate. There is what I would call the car park syndrome. Approval for the car park was secured only after the Government of the day put it down on the Order Paper on Thursday night when no one would see it. It came up at 11 o'clock the next morning—a Friday—and I came in at 12 o'clock when it was all finished. That motion was on the Order Paper for barely a few hours. This leads me to suggest that perhaps we should have rules specifying that items 1046 must appear on the Order Paper for a minimum period of time before they are discussed.
I would agree with what was said about the need for more Select Committees, but it would be important for them to have a proper back-up. It is no use having, as someone else put it, two men and a dog to advise a Committee. The Scrutiny Committee has quite a substantial staff, but all that that Committee can do is decide whether the House should discuss a particular matter. It cannot go into the merits of particular legislation, even though it might have sufficient staff to do so.
Our procedures relating to Supply have gone awry. There is the question of the Expenditure Committee. Many hon. Members have knowledge on all sorts of subjects, but they cannot deal with them in this context unless they are members of the Expenditure Committee. That defect could be eliminated at a stroke. Committees could be set up to deal with specific subjects, and the Government would accept that proposal if they were genuine in their desire to see these matters adequately considered.
If the Committee suggested by my right hon. Friend is set up, it should be a Committee of this House. It would be a disadvantage to have someone voting on that Committee who was not a Member of this House. It is obvious from what has been said today that many people would be unhappy with a Report which was produced other than by hon. Members of this House. Even if the Report were a good one, if outsiders had had a hand in it that would muddy the water and reduce the efficacy of the procedure. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend will not pursue this proposition.
Let us hear plenty of evidence from people outside, but let us leave it to hon. Members to produce the Report—perhaps including some quick proposals, which could be implemented immediately. Then we might begin not only to command the respect of the Government, because we must make any Government understand that this House means business, but we might be able to retain parliamentary democracy not only for the last quarter of this century but for the centuries to come.
§ 7.39 p.m.
§ Mr. George Reid (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)
As a Member of this House for less than two years and having heard tonight's distinguished and learned contributions, I get to my feet with some hesitancy. I venture to do so because I am a member of a minority party, because the first impressions of a new Member might have some small merit, and because the advent of the Scottish Assembly presents a unique opportunity for procedural innovation, change and experimentation.
My first impression is of how grossly overloaded the legislative process of this House has become and of how little the average Back Bencher can do but scratch the surface of the complex, technical, scientific and fiscal matters on which we all supposedly make major decisions. All parties promise the goodies in their election manifestos and have then to rush them through the House, often in ill-drafted form, before the Civil Service begins to put the dampers on. We can all think of examples, and the recent instance, on another tack, of the appalling speed with which we had to come to a decision on Chrysler. The Back Bench Member of Parliament has little independence. The point of decision making has been removed from the Division Lobby to the party meeting upstairs.
As Richard Crossman said in his introduction to the Bagehot edition of 1963:The debate on the Floor of the House becomes a formality and the Division which follows it is a foregone conclusion.As one of my more cynical friends in the Press commented to me last week, it might be prudent to have the vote first and the speeches afterwards. It is for that reason that I welcome the proposals contained in paragraphs 76 to 79 of the Devolution White Paper for the Scottish Assembly—to have a highly developed system of committees to advise the Executive and investigate what it is doing.I should like to see that process extended to the point, as in Sweden, where the same parliamentary Committees have both a pre-legislative and a legislative function; where there is a marriage of Standing and Select Committees so that there can be developed between hon. Members a degree of specialised knowledge and skill which is lacking now in Westminster.
1048 As to the overloading of this House, the simplest and most effective way of creating more time for English Members is to transfer Scottish measures to a Scots Parliament in Edinburgh. In doing so, the House will simultaneously allow the Scots a quality of legislation which has so far been available only to those denizens of the United Kingdom who live south of the border.
I will give a few examples. It is only by the luck of a lottery that my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick) is likely to bring in a humane and liberal divorce law in Scotland of the type enjoyed for years by our English neighbours. There is still no word of homosexual law reform north of the border. Only now is the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Scotland) Bill starting its slow progress through the House. Yet Lord Hunter produced his Report on the subject in the early 1960s. In 1964 the Tory Under-Secretary of State on the Treasury Bench assured hon. Members that the matter was being given "urgent attention". Two years later his Labour successor, sitting in exactly the same place, said that the matter was being given "very urgent attention". Now, 14 years later, we are beginning to see a small degree of action.
I quote a third area as it affects law and its procedure in Scotland. To hasten on enabling legislation, much United Kingdom legislation has run contrary to the spirit and principles of Scots law. Within the past week the Chairman of the Scottish Law Commission, speaking of such legislation as the Consumer Credit Act, the Sale of Goods Act and the Children Act, had this to say:It is weird legislation; weird from a Scots point of view.Therefore, I make a simple plea to English Members that, regardless of any other doubts they may have on devolution, they see the practical need for an Assembly in such procedural areas.
Scotland is the oldest nation in Europe within her present historical boundaries. In this age of devolution I hope that we in Scotland will be able to borrow some of the best current European procedural practice. It would be a pity if the Scottish Assembly were simply to be a pale carbon copy of Westminster. Why should not it sit, as the Lord President said it 1049 would have to, in the round? The building to which it is going is extremely well fitted to an oval chamber. If Scots Members want that, why not? If Scots Members so wish, why not, as in Europe, have a fixed time for speeches? Why should not the Speaker's Office in the Scots Assembly publish a timetable of who will speak when? Why should not the Scots Assembly, if it so wishes, work a nine o'clock to five o'clock day? Why should not we have a "Freedom of Public Information Act", as in Sweden?
In the Scots Assembly, procedurally, I hope to see a significant shift of business from the Floor of the House to Committee, where the real work will be done. I hope, as in the Swedish Riksdag, that the preparation of items of business to be transacted will be undertaken by Committees and that in all matters in any one sphere of business—regardless of whether it is legislation, appropriations or anything else—the Committees will have independent power and initiative. I trust that non-Members, be they Ministers, civil servants, industrialists or trade unionists, will be given permission to attend such Committees to accommodate ex parte testimony and the interrogation of witnesses. I hope that, as in the French Assembly, the presidents and rapporteurs of such Committees will possess special rights in debate.
It is desirable in our Assembly that it will become established that virtually all matters eventually resolved by the House are initially prepared in Committee. By reflecting the overall balance of the House in such Committees, individual Members and minorities will have a real opportunity, such as they do not have at present in this House, to have their proposals and dissenting opinions subjected to close examination.
I conclude with three quotations. Richard Crossman in the Godkin lectures of 1970 said:There is one institution which is really a consultative assembly attached to the Executive … and that is the House of Commons.Lord Butler, interviewed by the Government's new Number Two at the devolution unit, Lord Crowther-Hunt, in the Spectator of 16th September 1965 took an even blacker view. Talking of the Common Market he said: 1050The negotiations were all so complicated that half the Cabinet did not understand what it was all about. This is precisely the sort of thing in which the Cabinet is least apt to take a proper decision.As a new Member, I should like to see greater power returned to the Back Bencher. I should like to see Ministers, civil servants, industrialists and trade unionists open to greater questioning, but at the same time contributing—via Committee investigation—to the legislative process. I should like to see a greater consensus working through the Scottish Assembly, as I think that it does in the Stockholm Riksdag through its highly developed committee system. Bagehot said:We must expect what is venerable to acquire influence because of its inherent dignity; but we must not expect it to use that influence so well as new creations apt for the modern world.The Scottish Assembly will be such a new creation. I hope that hon. Members of this venerable House will look on its procedures as a point of new departure for all the British peoples.
§ 7.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Giles Radice (Chester-le-Street)
I shall not follow the remarks made by the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) on the subject of the Scottish Assembly, because to do so would merely be to repeat the last speech I made in the House. I welcome the idea of a Committee to look at the workings of the procedures of Parliament. I am glad that its remit is a wide-ranging one. Unlike any other hon. Member who has spoken, I am even in favour of having non-Members on the Committee, perhaps in the form of assessors, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper). I do not believe that all wisdom about our affairs rests purely in the Members of the House. Those who are outside have the right to be heard and to question.
The Lord President rightly said that the key question before us is what should be the rôle of Parliament in the last quarter of the twentieth century. I quote the words spoken by Richard Crossman nearly 10 years ago when we last had a thorough discussion of the workings of Parliament. He said:the House of Commons has largely lost the three functions for which its procedures were evolved and to which they are relevant, the 1051 making of Ministries, initiation of legislation shared with the Cabinet, and the watchdog control of finance and administration."—[Official Report, 14th December 1966; Vol. 738, c. 479.]As all those who knew Dick Crossman and those who did not but who have read the diaries appreciate, he often said things to provoke, but even allowing for that there is a lot of truth in the Cross-man thesis—certainly more than in the romantic view of the sovereignty of Parliament which we heard from the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell).
We have to face the fact that the coming of mass democracy and the rise of the party has meant that in normal circumstances this House does not make or unmake Ministries. That may change, but it is not true at the moment. Second, the power of the Government and of outside bodies like the TUC and the CBI has increased while the power of Parliament to initiate and control has decreased. The decline of Parliament is mirrored in almost every other legislature in the Western world. We do not help by pretending that we do or should possess certain powers that we have no hope of possessing.
What we can expect Parliament to do is influence, scrutinise and publicise. If we could do those three things effectively, we should be not only fulfilling the expectations of our constituents and of the community as a whole, but performing the democratic functions that we should perform in modern conditions.
There has been a fierce debate over the last 10 years about whether we should have a Chamber-oriented or a Committee-oriented Parliament. I believe that we should have both. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) said, we need to develop a subject Committee system to cover the major areas of policy making. Only through the cross-examination of Ministers and civil servants are we likely to be able continuously—that is the key word—to influence the development of policy making, and we can do that only through the Committee system.
Several reforms are needed and those who are much more knowledgeable than I have made very good suggestions today. 1052 There is a case for a pre-legislation Committee and for Standing Committees being able to call for evidence. There is also a case for the Report stages of more technical Bills being taken in Committee.
This Chamber should be the sounding box of the nation. We are not the sounding box of the nation when a handful of Members discuss the details of highly technical Bills on the Floor of the House, when we fail to discuss the topical matters which concern our constituents, when we debate them long after they have been topical, or when our proceedings are not broadcast.
A subsidiary but still important question is that of our hours of work, a subject on which another member of my family has had one or two words to say. Our hours should be related to our objectives, to our effectiveness as a body to influence, scrutinise and publicise. We should not continue to do things just because they used to be done in the nineteenth century.
I have found that our constituents are not particularly impressed when they discover that one of the reasons that we do not meet until 2.30 p.m. is that a number of hon. Members, particularly lawyers, have other work to do, or that it is to the advantage of the Executive. I do not think that the latter is true, anyway. Ministers attend Question Time, which we should have in the morning, only once a fortnight, and it will not be inconvenient to them to give up one morning a fortnight. Certainly our constituents are not impressed to learn that we have sat here all night. They just think that we are stupid.
I accept that the power of delay is one of the rights of opposition. That is the only serious argument. But do not let us pretend that late hours improve our ability to influence and scrutinise legislation. Only an effective Committee system can do that. So there is a serious case for having Question Time and statements in the morning and starting our main proceedings at 2.30 p.m. That would mean that our proceedings would normally end with a vote at 8 p.m. at the latest. I am advocating not shorter but different parliamentary hours. That is a distinction which is not always made in this debate.
I accept that reform of the House does not appeal to every hon. Member, particularly 1053 those who have been here a long time, and I can understand that, but those opposing change should remember that they have a responsibility not only to themselves and to the House but to the community as a whole. Certainly we should beware lest we confuse genuine concern for the rights of Parliament with a desire to maintain the parliamentary status quo No institution—not even Parliament—has a divine right to exist. If we fail—I say "we" because it will be our decision—to adapt to modern conditions, like old soldiers we shall not die but simply fade away.
§ 7.57 p.m.
§ Mr. David Price (Eastleigh)
I shall not follow the hon. Member for Chesterle-Street (Mr. Radice), not because his speech was not interesting, but in the interests of brevity.
There appears to be general agreement, with the possible exception of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), that a general review of our procedures is necessary. Certainly I have supported it. I spoke in the debate on the Address in support of the Government's proposal to have a review this Session. But I hope that the Select Committee—it has become clear that it must be a Select Committee rather than any other review body—will reject the over-simple view that the more days in the year that the House sits, the better the result.
On 29th November 1944, Winston Churchill said:Do not suppose that you can strengthen Parliament by wearying it and by keeping it in almost continuous session. If you want to reduce the power of Parliament, let it sit every day in the year one-fifth part filled, and then you will find that it will be the laughing stock of the nation ".—[Official Report, 29th November 1944; Vol. 406, c. 26.]This is not a plea for Members of Parliament to do less work. I acknowledge that our first duty lies in attendance here.
But our attendance here is more worthwhile when we renew our contacts not only in our constituencies but in the world outside, in personal contacts. That adds greatly to the general contribution that we all make, across party and within party, to discussing the nation's affairs. My colleagues across the party spectrum are always most pleasant, affable and wise and their comments 1054 most trenchant in the first few weeks after the long recess. There is a certain refreshment which comes with wider experience. But when we have sat here too long in the dog days at the end of July or early August, we find ourselves at our least good.
I want to come straight to some positive proposals and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), I shall use verbal shorthand. The first proposal that I make appertains to the parliamentary year. There are three traditional functions which fall to us every year to fulfil: voting Supply, voting taxation and voting appropriation. There is a fourth function which is the continuing consideration and monitoring of the economic effects of our exercise of those functions. In verbal shorthand, I describe that as dealing with supply and demand management.
As I said in the debate on the Loyal Address, we arrange our affairs on a time scale which makes it about as difficult as possible to discuss those four functions together. The annual calendar works in such a way that we have the Queen's Speech late in October, when the Government put forward their policy proposals, especially their legislative proposals, for the forthcoming year. Then we get the Estimates trickling out through February. Then in early March we get that now key document the Public Expenditure White Paper, which takes a five-year look at the use of public resources, Then in April we get the Budget.
Even the smallest social club conducts its affairs on a better timetable. If there is a policy decision about the sports field, the budget is produced and there is some discussion about how the money might be raised for it.
Therefore I suggest that an obvious reform is to try to bring these four functions into a better juxta-position on the time scale. I do not mind which is altered in favour of which, but it seems reasonable to start the annual Session with the Queen's Speech, with the Estimates, with the Public Expenditure White Paper and to follow that shortly with the Budget. I cannot see any difficulty about doing that. It is simply a matter of bringing them together. Whether that means starting Sessions in the spring rather than in the autumn is a matter for discussion.
1055 But that we should bring them together on the same time scale seems reasonable.
The second matter is the greater use of Select Committees. I do not think that we have exhausted the use of Select Committees. Nor do I believe that if we make greater use of them we shall entirely upset the balance, about which two hon. Members have spoken, between the use of Select Committees and debate on the Floor of the House.
The recent growth of Select Committees has been good and constructive. But their effect on the body politic has been limited by a number of constraints. The first, which has been emphasised by a number of hon. Members, is the lack of time afforded for debate in the Chamber on the many excellent Reports emanating from our Select Committees. The second is the inability of the media to cover their proceedings adequately, although the media are now admitted to nearly all their sittings.
I want to develop some of the proposals foreshadowed by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, although there has been no collusion between us. I believe that we should have one Select Committee for each Department of State or group of Departments and that that Select Committee should handle everything connected with that Department. For instance, it should examine annually that Department's Estimates. It might dismiss them fairly quickly, but it should look at them every year and report to the House.
I believe that all Bills appertaining to that Department should start in the Select Committee. That is a new form of procedure, and the old language, First and Second Reading, I suggest, are not applicable. But a Bill should start in that Select Committee. I suggest that there should be a general debate in that Committee which could then be followed by the examination of witnesses in support of or against it, rather in the manner in which the Abortion (Amendment) Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. White) was dealt with by a Select Committee. Following that, the Bill should go through a Committee stage in that Select Committee. Then it could come down to the Floor of the House for a general debate in the nature 1056 of a Second Reading, with the Bill already having been examined in the Select Committee and amendments made to it. Then it would be followed by a Report stage. That, again, would be necessary to give everyone in the House an opportunity to discuss the detail.
That procedure is not very different from what happens in a number of European Parliaments, with Bills starting in a committee—in our case, a Select Committee—a general debate, examination of witnesses if necessary, and a Committee stage. Then, the Bill having been processed, it comes down to the Floor where there is a general debate, followed by a Report stage.
§ Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)
Is the hon. Gentleman on firm ground in praying in aid the Abortion (Amendment) Bill? Although I am very happy that the Bill is stuck in a Select Committee and is likely to remain so for a decade, nevertheless on very controversial subjects it seems to be a method of delay rather than one of action.
§ Mr. David Price
That is a matter to be gone into elsewhere. I call that recent experience in aid merely to try to find a precedent. It is always a good way to encourage hon. Members to accept change if one can find a precedent. If the hon. Gentleman says that it is not a very good one, I take his point. But I think that he understands the broad framework which I am suggesting.
Then there is the problem of Supply Days. A number of hon. Members have pointed out that we do not debate Supply. I understand that it is since 1902 that the Opposition have had the right to choose the Votes to be debated. But, under my proposals about the greater use of Select Committees, the Estimates and the Supply would be considered in the appropriate Departmental Select Committee.
We have to work out a proper balance, if my idea does not appeal to the House, between reverting to the debate of Supply in the proper sense of the word and the allocation of an appropriate number of days to the Opposition.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the Expenditure Committee's Sub-Committees now are supposed to do that job and could 1057 do it—because there is no procedural obstacle—but just will not do it?
§ Mr. David Price
I do not serve on that Select Committee, so it is not really for me to comment on that. If the hon. Gentleman says that that is so, I accept it from him. But it was he who pointed out the overlapping terms of reference of Committees. I am suggesting that we group our Committees on the basis of a single Department or, in the case of a large enough Department, such as the Department of the Environment, split it into two Committees which would deal with everything, including Estimates and expenditure. The hon. Gentleman himself pleaded for something very much on those lines.
That brings me to my point about Supply Days. We have to acknowledge that in our proceedings we no longer have a two-party House of Commons. We have to accommodate ourselves to a multiparty House. There is then the question whether the party system should be more formally recognised in our procedures. It is a fact of parliamentary life, but should it be granted a more formal monopoly of all the action? I am sure that hon. Members can envisage various ways in which it could. Nevertheless, I believe that it should not. But the Select Committee will have to dispose of some of the arguments which superficially are plausible about why the parties should not be more formally recognised.
Then there is the problem of Question Time.
These are just a few suggestions that I put to the House. I have no doubt that, whatever proposals come from the Select Committee, some right hon. and hon. Members will find them inconvenient, inappropriate, or even wrong. I take heart from that great Elizabethan, Richard Hooker, when he said:Change is not made without inconvenience from worse to better.Like many other hon. Members who have spoken, I wish to see changes in our procedure from worse to better, but I am under no illusion that they can be made without some inconvenience.
§ 8.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Bruce Grocott (Lichfield and Tamworth)
I shall be brief and try to concentrate on two broad issues which are 1058 connected with the reform of Parliament. They have only been touched on by previous speakers but they set the context for any debate or any Select Committee that may consider the affairs of this House.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Price) was the first person to touch on the second of the two points I wish to make. We have spoken time and again during the debate—and I have listened to most of it—about Parliament, the need for parliamentary reform and the relationship between Parliament and Government. We have all been guilty of using the wrong phrase and the wrong language, because most of the time we have not been talking about Parliament at all but about a part of Parliament—the House of Commons. To some extent is it an indication of the irrelevance that most hon. Members attach to the House of Lords that they have not considered it as a part of this process when they have discussed the relationship between Parliament and the Executive.
Although my right hon. Friend the Lord President said that in any Select Committee which considered the procedure and methods of this House there should not be any discussion about the rôle and the function of the House of Lords, I maintain that that House is an essential part of the context in which this House of Commons operates, that we cannot ignore it and that there is no other forum in which the functions and rôle of the House of Lords can be debated. Its functions and rôle have to be debated at some stage. No one can be happy with its composition, powers and functions or with the kind of relationship that it has with this House, particularly with a Labour Government and a Labour-controlled Parliament as opposed to a Conservative Government and a Consertive-controlled Parliament.
If we do not consider it now, we shall have a Select Committee which considers House of Commons reform and we shall carry out some reforms, and at a later date we shall have to consider the rôle and function of the House of Lords. If that happens, we shall fudge the issue again because we shall say "We have just had a thorough-going review of the functions of the House of Commons and it is no good trying to change what the Commons does and the way it goes about its business." Therefore, we cannot talk 1059 about procedure here without talking about procedure in another place. Even relatively new hon. Members know how much time is spent discussing referrals back from the House of Lords and they know how integral a part of this House that second Chamber is. Any discussion about procedure here cannot fail to take note of the rôle and function of the second Chamber.
The other broad contextual point which I wish to make was referred to briefly by the hon. Member for Eastleigh and is crucial to the whole operation of this House and its procedure. It is the way in which the political parties operate. It is incredible how long it takes us, both in the country and in this House, to recognise a fact of political life. For over 100 years the operation of the major parties has been crucial to the operation of our democracy, and it is only recently that we have even admitted their existence by putting their names on ballot papers. That was done after great debate about the traumas that might follow and the grave constitutional implications involved. Then, as always, there were many people who were prepared to defend the status quo but at long last we recognised the inevitable—that most of us are not here because of massive adulation by our constituents but are here, at least in part, because of the support we have as members of political parties. Depending on our modesty, it is either a bigger or a smaller part of the reason for our existence in this place.
It is only recently that we have recognised the function of political parties, and this is illustrated by the aid which my right hon. Friend the Lord President has recommended and agreed to give to Opposition parties in this House. A Committee is in the course of considering whether State aid should be given to political parties in the country at large. I fully support that kind of State aid. It is a part of the machinery of government. Whether we like it or not, those parties exist and we might as well ensure that as far as possible they operate efficiently and effectively.
For several hours we have debated the reform of procedure of this House, but in doing so we have hardly mentioned the existence of political parties. Therefore, the context of the debate has been 1060 unreal. The way in which the parties elect their respective leaders is of crucial national, constitutional significance. In effect, whenever the party which is in power elects its leader, it elects the Prime Minister of the day. The Labour Party has settled the manner in which it elects its leader but the Opposition seem to have various methods. If, 12 years ago, we had suggested that the Conservative Party should elect its leader, we should have been regarded as editorial writers of the Morning Star, previously the Daily Worker. That revolutionary proposal was eventually accepted by Conservative Members.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)
Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise that tomorrow we shall do something very important by a consensus of view, not by election? We shall not only elect a Speaker but we shall elect the Chairman of Ways and Means and the deputies who will serve this House faithfully. All that will be done through the channel of a general consensus of view and not by an open fight or election.
§ Mr. Grocott
The crucial difference is that a procedure for election exists. Whether or not an election takes place depends on whether people wish to contest the choice. However, there was no procedure for election of the Leader of the Conservative Party until recently. The issue has not yet been finally settled as to how he or she should be re-elected. The Liberal Party, which is not represented here today, has not decided the method of electing or re-electing its leader. This will always be a point of issue in British politics.
I find it incredible that some Conservative Members can get themselves into a lather about how trade union branch meetings organise elections but take it to be an insult to the democratic process for anyone to inquire how the leader of one of our major political parties is elected.
The context of the operation of political parties and the rôle of the House of Lords are crucial to any consideration of the reform of the procedure of Parliament. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take those two points into account. When the Select Committee is established, I hope that it will also consider both these issues. If it does, at 1061 least we shall have a realistic debate and not have to have another debate on a similar issue a short time ahead.
§ 8.20 p.m.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)
In one sense, Mr. Deputy Speaker, with respect, I regret that Mr. Speaker is not in the Chair, because I want to raise a matter on which he has tendered very strong advice regarding our procedures, advice to which the House has paid no account so far.
I want to confine myself mainly to the Fourth Report from the Select Committee on Procedure dealing with the length and prolixity of speeches in this House. I believe and have believed for a long time that it is essential to have not merely a convention but a practice of the House, whether binding or otherwise, that Front Bench speeches be limited to 30 minutes and Back Bench speeches to 15 minutes. The only times for those limits to be exceeded should be when, by consensus, there is plenty of time for longer speeches—for example, in Committee or on Report stages of Bills, or on other occasions when the Chair indicates that the normal time limit shall not apply.
It is all very well, but unfortunately, with that way he has and without a number of us taking the opportunity that would have been open, the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) intellectually bulldozed the Select Committee with his views so as completely to dominate it, but his views are complete poppycock. On page × the Committee said:The only purpose of debate is to sway men's opinions. Unless Members are free to attempt that task in whatever way and at whatever length seems to them fitted to the purpose, the House and the public interest will be the loser.Later, it went on:Moreover, the more debate is limited either by time limits on the whole debate … or by time limits on individual speeches, the more the House lapse into bored inattention ".That is absolute poppycock. I do not know who wrote it. The Members who are best able to make first-class speeches can make them in 15 minutes at any time. It is those who wander on, and have not thought out what they want to say, who bore the House of Commons.
1062 Front Bench speeches have to go into explanation of difficult situations and matters of policy. As they have to explain the content of a Bill or a particular measure, they require half-an-hour. The speech by the Lord President of the Council took 37 minutes. I suggest that with the greatest of ease he could have made it in 30 minutes. My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) took 30 minutes. Then, of course, as usual, the right hon. Member for Down, South, with that intellectual arrogance to which we have become accustomed, took 20 minutes without a thought for anybody. That situation cannot continue to obtain.
Those who have been called on this side of the House so far have been Members of considerable seniority. We have had three Privy Councillors and one ex-Minister. Not one younger Member on this side has dared to intervene in this debate. We must not assume that they do not have views on this subject. Of course they have. It is time that the House paid serious attention to this subject.
It is not difficult for an hon. Member to make a speech in 10 minutes. It is rubbish to suggest that it would have to be written out. During a General Election all hon. Members must have done it. I certainly have. I have had to make a speech of a highly party political content in five minutes and to record it on a gramophone record so that I could drive round the constituency playing it. The idea is that it is played when one is not there and one then comes back and answers questions later. It is one of the oldest tricks in the game.
It is possible for experienced speakers in this House to know how long they intend to speak, given a minute or two's grace one way or the other. There is no foundation for the suggestion that, because of interruptions, there should be some kind of offside, rather like in a football match. The Chair should be given discretion to allow an extra minute or two when an hon. Member has been unfairly interrupted, but it must also take a Member to account if he exceeds the time limit.
§ Mr. Spearing
I think that at the moment I am the only member of the Select Committee which looked at this matter who is present in the House. 1063 Precisely with which part, other than that which he quoted, which I think was not the Report of the Committee but the evidence of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), does the hon. and learned Member disagree?
I referred to paragraph 22 of the Report, the main conclusions. I do not agree that if we limit the times of speeches the House willlapse into bored inattention, merely counting the minutes until a speech is over in order to vote.We are in this difficulty today because only Members who intend to speak come here. If they cannot get in, they go away. Otherwise they have to listen to a lot of speeches, many of which they do not want to hear. We need sharp-shooting, hard-hitting speeches delivered in 10 minutes. I do not suggest five minutes because that would be too short.
I suggest three simple rules. First, it should be a practice of the House, which should be brought to the attention of the new Speaker and Deputy Speaker beginning tomorrow—which is why it is apposite that it should be dealt with today—to carry out what Mr. Speaker Selwyn Lloyd, as he will be known after tomorrow, advised—namely, half an hour for Front Bench speeches and 15 minutes for Back Bench speeches. However, that should not apply on occasions where it is not necessary—for example, on Report and in debates when Mr. Speaker recognises that it is not necessary. Otherwise, that should be the convention.
Secondly, there should be a period, as Mr. Speaker indicated in Appendix 2, page 19 of the Report, when, as he has agreed, as an experiment there should be a period of two hours in each debate in which speeches are limited to 10 minutes. It is obvious that it would be between seven and nine o'clock in the evening in debates so designated. I think that we should find a considerable number of Members coming in for those debates.
Thirdly, I hope that radio will be brought back. I should like the power of the voice to be used rather than the repetitive reports which we get on radio. For example, the "Today" programme in the mornings was so much better when we could hear the Questions put by the Members with authority. Many hon. 1064 Members have magnificent voices. They have much better voices than most BBC and ITV broadcasters in both tone and content. I should infinitely prefer the voices of my colleagues to those projected afterwards in reports.
I hope, too, that television will be brought into this House. I recognise that some people will play to the camera, and so on. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will play to the camera wherever he is. However, the camera will destroy him and the likes of him, and we shall be glad to see their destruction. In front of the camera he will become to the people of this country the bore that he has become to us.
I do not think that I have spoken for more than 15 minutes in speeches for a very long time. I conclude now in about that time. For the sake of younger Members and of the country, we should seek to relieve this place from many insufferably boring debates. We must fill this Chamber by bringing in hon. Members to intervene for five, seven or 10 minutes between the hours of six and eight. Honourable Members can make first-class speeches if they can get in. If we can get radio and television, or both, working here, we shall revive the House of Commons itself.
I support what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) about secondary legislation. There should be a Select Committee to consider procedure and, with the support of the House, I intend to serve on it to see that we speed up the process generally and enliven the proceedings in this Chamber.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)
The hon. and learned Member will be pleased to know that he spoke for exactly 10 minutes.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)
I do not want to be on the Committee, but I have a few remarks to make. I felt that the high point of the debate was reached when the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) was warming to his theme and coming to Cabinets and Cabinet Committees and suddenly, when he was about to expound to the House exactly how 1065 the Government worked, he clapped his hand over his mouth and drew a gag over "procedures which I am not allowed to refer to in the House". I felt that that remark, in a debate of this kind, was a paradigm of the passion for secrecy with which anybody who has been a Minister of the Crown—with certain exceptions, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer)—is obsessed.
I do not think that any tinkering around with the rules of procedure—whether a minor or major tinkering—will have the slighest effect in bringing about the kind of changes that Back Bench Members on both sides want unless there is a genuine change of heart and mind by the Government and the civil servants by whom they are sometimes run about secrecy and keeping information from Members of the House.
The right hon. and learned Member for Hexham mentioned the Crossman diaries. As a Member on the Government benches, what makes me sad is the change of attitude on the part of a succession of lawyers. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin)—my own Member of Parliament—and Lord Gardiner and Lord Elwyn-Jones, who have had a long life campaigning as civil libertarian lawyers, as soon as they put on their robes of office, in either this place or the other, become converted overnight to secrecy. The attempt to suppress the Crossman diaries exactly illustrates that point.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that this was a matter of balance between the need for effective government on the one side and the demands of Parliament on the other. That is a load of codswallop. Proper scrutiny by this House would make government immensely more effective than it is now. I have had some small glimpses into this, because 10 years ago when I first came to the House I was made a PPS in the Department of Education and Science, and I have suddenly become one for a short period again now. Things have not changed at all. The same people 10 years later are saying the same things and, more important, are evincing the same attitudes about releasing information to the House.
1066 Now that it has been shown that civil servants are the aristocrats of the highly paid in the country, now that they are overtaking private industry, left, right and centre, they must be made far more open to scrutiny by this House, and the old argument that because they cannot answer back they must never be scrutinised must go out of the window once and for all.
I want to pursue the point about how an investigative House of Commons can improve the quality of government. I very much admired Richard Crossman's attempt to set up a reasonably effective system of Select Committees. Indeed I believe that, by a complete accident, I was Chairman of the first Sub-Committee of one of the Crossman Select Committees to sit outside the House in public. That was when we went to investigate what was going on at Guildford College of Art in 1967 or 1968. Various people came to me and said that they would not turn up. I had to draw myself to my full height—such as it is—and say "You will attend, because this is a Select Committee of Parliament", and they did.
I contrast that with what is happening now to Select Committees 10 years later, 10 years after Crossman, as a result of Government action. We all have enormous affection for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. There is a certain amount of evidence that he wanted to appear before the Expenditure Committee, but he has been prevented from giving evidence about a matter which everybody in Britain and, indeed, the United States of America knows he played a significant part in organising. I am, of course, referring to Chrysler.
Last Session the House set up a Select Committee to consider the Cyprus affair. That may have been a right decision or a wrong decision, but that is what took place. At the beginning of the new Session a motion was tabled and passed which denied the Committee the power to send for persons and papers. Apparently my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs felt that he did not want to talk about certain matters as they are too sensitive. On Thursday we heard about how Select Committees must treat Ministers with sensitivity and delicacy, but in the United States of 1067 America, where there are far more sensitive secrets and where the nation's worldwide rôle is far more important, Dr. Kissinger can be grilled for hours.
I believe that foreign policy and defence policy are the touchstones of the Government's seriousness about policy scrutiny. They let us scrutinise education, housing and race relations as that may help them, but I shall only believe that the Government believe their protestations about open government when a Labour or Conservative Government allow genuine public scrutiny by Select Committee of foreign and defence policies.
I do not wish to say anything against my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I am grateful for his sensible, wise and intelligent decision at long last to re-establish the Select Committee on Cyprus. The long problem that we have experienced with that Committee illustrates the difficulties we experience when trying to scrutinise—
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I strongly supported the setting up of that Committee. The hon. Gentleman probably also recognises that in defence, and even in foreign affairs. there may well be discretionary limits which the Foreign Secretary might have to impose upon himself so as to maintain diplomatic confidentiality between nations, and certainly in the interests of security. This will be a difficult and delicate matter.
§ Mr. Price
I quite agree that when a Committee sends for a particular person it is up to him to answer questions in his own way and to refrain from answering questions if he thinks that they raise matters which are too delicate. However, in the instance to which I have referred there was a refusal to attend.
As regards foreign policy, if we had had public scrutiny by Select Committee at the time of Suez or proper public scrutiny of our policy on Vietnam, I believe that the Government would have come to a more sensible policy more quickly instead of being the last Western Government to fall into line.
We do not need computers, outsiders and all the other panaceas to help us through our difficulties, but a genuine change of heart on the part of the Government and their civil servants. That 1068 is what we require if we are to have the sort of open government that certain Scandinavian countries have had for many years and which I would like to see in this country.
§ 8.39 p.m.
§ Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)
I promise that I shall be very brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are talking about the status of the House of Commons and how the country sees us. It is our job to alter our procedures and to run our affairs not only in the most efficient manner but so that those outside the House can understand what we are doing and how we are doing it. The status of Parliament is not as high as many of us would like it to be seen.
We all know that one of the greatest problems Parliament faces is the amount of legislation that passes through the machine. From 1939 onwards the statute books have grown thicker and thicker. With great respect to the Leader of the House, this process occurs under Governments of whatever political complexion.
If we add to that load the European legislation, we find that this House is becoming overburdened. Our task is to ensure that we can still carry out our duty as watchdogs on the economy, defence and all other important issues. It is right that Back Benchers should be able to question the Government as effectively as can Front Bench speakers on expenditure and many other vital matters. I believe that there is not enough Back Bench time to enable an hon. Member to carry out that job as effectively as he or she is entitled.
I have on the Order Paper a motion signed by 84 hon. Members dealing with the time allotted to Back Benchers. The motion suggests that the time in certain circumstances should be restricted to 15 minutes to enable as many contributors as possible to take part in our discussions. I do not suggest that the proposal should be implemented universally but I suggest that it should be operated at the Chair's discretion. It would be possible for an hon. Member to continue if it were considered that the contents of his speech were vital, but the Chair would also be provided with the right to close his remarks at the end of 15 minutes. In that way we should bring some punch 1069 into our debates and more contributors would be enabled to take part, especially on the vital issues of the day.
Unfortunately, I know that the Leader of the House will tell me that the Select Committee has recommended against any suggestion of a compulsory time limit. However, we have made a little progress because my researchers tell me that Queen Elizabeth I requested a time limit of one hour on speeches. The average speech in the House today amounts to 16 minutes.
I still believe that the idea of a limit on speeches to 15 minutes should be considered. It would lead a contributor to weigh every word. It would give hon. Members from all constituencies interested in a particular subject the opportunity to take part in important debates. Parliament consists not only of Front Benchers but also of large numbers of individual Members of Parliament, each of whom has a contribution to make.
I quarrel with one suggestion made by the Leader of the House. I believe that the Select Committee on Procedure should be composed only of Members of Parliament, because it is they alone who are answerable to Parliament in this House. Let us bring in the specialists, but let them give their evidence and then leave Members of Parliament to judge what proposals they bring before the House. In altering our procedure, we shall be making it easier to carry out our job as guardians and custodians of the people, their defence and their expenditure and in upholding democracy.
§ 8.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)
I approach this subject with some cynicism because I believe that eventually we shall be lumbered with a high-powered Committee of worthy Privy Councillors who will consider this subject and come up with a series of recommendations which the Government or House will disagree with or not proceed to implement.
I am not optimistic about the proposed exercise. There is a danger that it may be quoted as an alibi for not taking action in the near future. If there were sufficient will in the House of Commons, we could well make progress on these matters without the aid of a further Committee.
1070 We shall never make this House as effective as it should be until we establish a coherent and powerful Committee system. This theme has come up from both sides of the House in the debate. It was touched on by my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) and Chesterle-Street (Mr. Radice) and the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Price). It is the fundamental reform which the House requires.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury said that we already have a weird and incoherent hotch-potch of Committee—Select Committees on certain subjects, Standing Committees, departmental Committees and functional Committees—but no plan, no formal scheme, no proper apparatus and no system. Four years ago there were four Committees—the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, the Public Accounts Committee, the Expenditure Committee and the Select Committee on Science and Technology—all dabbling in investigations of the same nationalised industry. I think that the industry was the mining industry, but it may have been the electricity industry. Four separate Committees were all going their own sweet way, supposedly investigating the affairs of one public corporation. I am sure that more recent examples could also be given.
Those who oppose a coherent, powerful Committee system—and there are many on the Labour Benches—argue that it would devalue or undermine the proceedings on the Floor of the House. But what happens in a one-day debate on the Floor? We have six hours of debate, two and a half hours of which are used by the Front Benches, with three and a half hours being taken up by Back Benchers. That means that about seven hon. Members from each side contribute to the debate. Is that a satisfactory way of giving expression to the feelings of the House as a whole—14 or 16 speeches, with seven or eight from each side's Back Benchers out of a total of 600 Back Benchers? It is not satisfactory.
That will continue until we clear from the House matters which should more properly and sensibly be dealt with by a Committee system. I agree that there is a place on the Floor for major debates, 1071 the kind of great debate we had on devolution, the Common Market and the major debates on the Queen's Speech and the Budget, which can extend over three or four days, when 50, 60 or possibly even more hon. Members can put forward their views and express their considered opinions to the Government. That is fair and sensible. I have grave doubts, however, about the value of a one-day debate in which only a tiny percentage of hon. Members can express a view.
In contrast, a Committee can sit for, not six hours, but for 30, 40 or 50 hours if it wishes. It can sit repeatedly and go into a matter in detail. It can subject Ministers to much more detailed and tight pressure and scrutiny in its proceedings than the House can do in the conventional debate on the Floor, where nine times out of 10 the Minister at the end reads the speech which he had intended to read all along.
A great deal has been made of following the debate with the vote. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) was right to say that voting is extremely important, but the Government control the vote on the Floor infinitely more easily than they control any vote in Committee. In Committee it requires only one or two hon. Members to abstain or to switch and the Government are in trouble, but on the Floor of the House, if there is to be a vote, as there often is, the cohorts come trooping in for it. I am one of them, and I accept my responsibility. Nine-tenths of those who vote have heard not one word of the debate. They cast their vote along conventional party lines. The effect of the debate on the Floor of the House is almost negligible. In Committee, however, there is the possibility that the Minister can be influenced by the argument and that other Members will be similarly influenced and may on occasions modify their views and abstain or vote against their original view-point.
Without a sensible Committee system the House can have no sensible control over finance. The scrutiny of the Public Accounts Committee is valuable but it is post facto. We do not have an ongoing power of subjecting appropriations to anything like the scrutiny which the House ought to exercise if it is to do its job properly. That kind of job cannot be 1072 done by a general debate on the Floor of the House.
Very properly, the question of European legislation has been raised. A major part of our difficulty in dealing with this lies in the fact that we have no Committee system. We have now pushed the whole lot into the lap of the Scrutiny Committee. The question of European energy policy would be much more sensibly dealt with by the Select Committee on Science and Technology. Agriculture policy could be much more sensibly dealt with by a Select Committee on Agriculture, and so on across the board.
While I have a great deal of respect for what the Scrutiny Committee is doing or attempting to do, I believe that it is trying to cope with the impossible in seeking to follow the great volume of legislation from Brussels. Valuable though its work is, it is tackling an impossible task. Until this House has a sensible Committee structure it will not be able to cope with Brussels legislation any more than it can cope with our own.
§ Mr. Heffer
Can my hon. Friend tell me how a Back Bench Member who is not on a particular Committee will be able to express a view to a Minister under this proposed system? While our present system may not be satisfactory—I accept that much can be done to improve it—each Back Bench Member has, on some occasion, the chance to raise a matter with a Minister.
§ Mr. Hooley
I can only tell my hon. Friend of my own experience. At the moment I am a member of three Committees, one Standing Committee and two Select Committees. I am certain that the little I contribute to those Committees is infinitely more valuable than anything I can achieve by some 5- or 10-minute speech on the Floor of the House. Possibly my hon. Friend has a different experience.
We must look again at the times of sittings, not merely in terms of our personal convenience but in terms of our responsibilities outside the House. I regard it as an insult to individuals and to groups outside the House that every now and again, when we have committed ourselves to see certain people, we have to say that because there is a three-line 1073 Whip or a running Whip we must cancel the appointment. People are generous and do not make a fuss. With a sensible arrangement of our business it should be possible for hon. Members to enter into commitments of that sort without arbitrarily being prevented from doing so.
§ Mr. Hooley
Not on a three-line Whip.
There is a further difficulty with our sittings on Friday. The hours on a Friday make it difficult for an hon. Member who wishes to attend a debate, because he has a special interest in the topic, to carry out other duties. Often he may have to forgo an engagement because of this. This happens from time to time. I believe that we ought to have a look at the times of our sittings.
Finally, I come to the question whether the proposed Committee should have amongst its membership people other than Members. I differ from the majority view. There are distinguished people outside the House who could contribute something of value to the Committee's deliberations. Of course the Committee must be composed dominantly of Members, and its recommendations must come up for decision in the House, but there is a degree of arrogance about the notion that only Members have a special understanding of what is done in Parliament. There are people of distinction outside the House who could serve us honestly and well in this respect without impairing the efficiency of the Committee.
§ 8.55 p.m.
§ Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)
I am grateful to have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have been waiting here since 3.30 p.m. My first comment is to stress the difficulty which a Member experiences when he is called at the end of a long debate having been kept dangling till that point wondering whether he will be called. I have sitting in front of me a colleague who hopes to be called. I shall therefore abridge my remarks.
I want to concentrate hon. Members' minds on the fact that as we develop our procedure we shall have to look up and down. We shall have to balance our activities between the regional pressures, which will be stronger than constituency 1074 pressures, against national interests and against the interests of Europe as we engage more deeply with the Community.
I turn to the question of devolution. With the setting-up of the regional Assemblies—it has not yet been decided what form they will take—Westminster may well be regarded as a highly dictatorial body and may well be treated in the same way as some look to the arrogance that appears to emanate from Brussels. Therefore, we in the House will have on the one hand to consider the pressures from the regions and develop our procedures to meet them.
On the other hand—I speak as a member of the European Parliament, albeit a new one, as well as of this Parliament—I am well aware that national idiosyncrasies—whether French, German, British or Italian—can lead at best to a failure to harmonise and co-ordinate and at worst to conflict between the nations and the parliamentary representatives of the nations who come together. I fervently believe that our economic recovery and the entity of Britain are bound up with Europe and, therefore, that national interests and regional interests cannot be dissociated from the wider European interest.
I turn to the procedures of the House. I respect the views of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), but I believe that one of the difficulties today is that Members of Parliament need to be better informed about the complex issues going on around them in this technological and scientific age. I have often, particularly in the European Parliament, wanted to know the pros and cons of an issue, what is my party's line, what is the Government's view, and what are the various views of the civil servants who advise the Government.
Three years ago I attended a very interesting conference in Geneva organised by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, on the theme—is the Member of Parliament sufficiently well-informed to do his job? A former Member of the House—Sir Gilbert Longden—wound up the debate. Since then I have not only chaired a sub-committee of the Council of Europe but have been several times to the library of Congress to see how academic minds are concentrating on ensuring that a Member of Parliament is well briefed, knows the various issues at stake, 1075 and does not necessarily reach his conclusions on an emotional basis only.
Next week I shall be at Strasbourg for the European Parliament. The agenda has not yet been settled, although there is a draft agenda available for the political groups to scrutinise this week. In addition there are regular meetings of Parliamentary committees, mainly in Brussels, and frequently, when looking at the agenda and preparing my papers, I want to know the Government line, my party line, and the views of expert groups in this country and others. It is easy to reach an emotional conclusion on many issues, but my emotional conclusion as a British Member may be entirely different from that of a German or a Frenchman.
I welcome the suggestion of the Leader of the House that we should look into the use of data banks. The right hon. Member for Down, South referred to the indexing of Hansard. I think it is hopeless. It should be on a flexible basis with various ways of getting out of Hansard all that has gone on for years and even decades past, let alone during one year. Computer indexing is common place in the scientific field. It is possible to make available more readily information hidden away in Hansard and Government publications.
Almost every Department has a data bank of information and Her Majesty's Stationery Office is working out computerised type-setting. Canada has set a fine precedent, which this country could well follow. I urge the Leader of the House to send representatives from here to Bonn, to Canada and to the Congress library to find out what other Parliaments are doing to keep Members better informed.
It is important that we be better informed about what is going on in Europe. As a member of the European Parliament, I keep hearing people say that Brussels is telling us what to do. But there are British members who take part in the deliberations in Brussels and there are British citizens on the Commission.
I welcomed the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) and I hope that British members of the European Parliament will be able to meet those on the scrutiny 1076 panel at regular intervals for an interchange of ideas. I attended a function recently where I met an hon. Member who is not here at the moment. He knew that I was a member of the European Parliament and he asked whether I knew about the Lomé Convention. I said that I was a member of the committee dealing with it. He said that he was on the Scrutiny Committee which was also considering it. We had not met before to discuss this subject. If only the Scrutiny Committee could meet members of the European Parliament, some of the communications gaps could be overcome.
So far the Scrutiny Committee has dealt with issues after the horse has bolted and the door has been locked. It has been looking at directives. I hope that the Leader of the House will find some way for the Committee to look at the agenda of each European committee. The Commission invariably provides a working document to the European committees pointing out the items that it thinks should be the subject of directives. I am on the committee dealing with the social conditions of inland waterways, which may not be of much importance to this country. It would be useful for those of us who are members of the European Parliament to have a Report from the Select Committee and a debate in the House before issues are raised in Strasbourg or Luxembourg. This Parliament is looking at issues too late.
I must be brief because of the time, but otherwise I could make many comments about the way in which we conduct our procedures here. Lord Diplock pointed out in a House of Lords debate on 22nd July last year—columns 291 and 292 of Hansard—and we have debated this in the European Parliament under the auspices of the Bertrand Committee—that the Commission comes forward with a proposal which has to be looked at by the Parliament and which then goes to the Council of Ministers. This procedure is in the process of being modified. It is to be hoped that when a European committee has looked at an issue, Members of Parliament considering it will be briefed by the Government of their own country, interested parties and, if necessary, by their own Parliament. But it must be realised that members of the European Parliament should think and act as Europeans, and not act as 1077 delegates for their own national Parliaments.
Then the issue goes back for the Commission to consider it. The issue is then handed to a group of permanent civil servants called COREPER—Committee of Permanent Representatives—who prepare an agenda for the Council of Ministers. It is laid down that these permanent officials should do their homework in time for the Ministers to know the issues and to form a view before the meeting. It could well be that COREPER is a bit tardy and finds difficulty in expressing its views.
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will consider two points. We have the classic examples of the Dragon reactor and the development of the high-temperature reactor. Only last week Commissioner Spinelli described a situation, which I would regard as a complete breakdown between Ministers, the European Parliament, the Commission and the national Governments of the Nine, to the Energy Committee. The Dragon project is being allowed to collapse. The development of the high-temperature reactor, most of the work on which has been done at Winfrith, is taking place without the backup which is available in Britain. There should have been better communication on these issues between Members of Parliament, Ministers and representatives in Europe, and the subject will be raised again.
I hope therefore that the European Parliament will arrange to send rapporteurs to the meetings of COREPER and I hope that the national scrutiny committees, including the British one, will do the same so that we may be certain that the Council of Ministers has the view of the British Parliament as well as of the delegates in the European Parliament as handed on to them by COREPER. We must find a way of quickly improving our procedures.
Perhaps to a much greater extent we must have a ministerial statement, one or two speeches from either side of the House, and then a question and answer session. Our timetable is too clogged up for a full debate of six and a half hours, although the subject of the debate is exceptional, such as has been the case this evening.
1078 I hope that the Leader of the House will press ahead with setting up the Committee to look at our procedures. Fifteen years ago Mr. R. A. Butler, as he then was, the Home Secretary, asked me what I, as a new Member, thought of the procedures. I said that as an industrialist from a different background I thought that they were inadequate, but he told me to sit tight and try to do something to improve them. I had been in the House of Commons a few years. I was joint author of a Conservative document entitled "Change or Decay". This House must face the fact that our procedures are inadequate for the modern age, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will do something about that in the light of this debate.
§ 9.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)
We have read a great deal recently about Mr. Speaker's "little red book" which lists lengthy speakers. Not wishing to appear in it, I shall be brief.
Many in this House see the rôle of a Member of Parliament as that of a glorious amateur performing all the manifold functions of an individual legislator. Some of us have secretaries, and some of us might also have part-time research assistants. However, a modern legislature requires modern legislators, and to perform our function adequately we desperately require far more assistance than the rather miserly allowance which we are at present given permits.
Far more responsibilities have been placed upon us not only in terms of acquiring expertise in a multitude of areas but in meeting the demands of our constituents, which quite rightly have grown in the past couple of years. We have to find the balance between our rôle as national politicians and keeping abreast of local affairs, serving our constituents, acting as ombudsmen, lawyers, marriage guidance counsellors, social workers and one-man pressure groups for our constituencies. It is an intolerable burden for one person to have to perform all these functions.
We laugh sometimes at the number of staff employed by American Congressmen. I would agree that, let us say, the 10th District of Texas is larger than Walsall, South. But one must remember that between my constituents and the 1079 Administration there would be local councillors, who have no staff assistance, and the Member of Parliament. In American government there would be a whole series of layers of government and administration, with each elected official served by a staff. The rôle which a Member of Parliament is expected to perform almost individually is as great as the rôle performed by an American Congressman aided by a large number of staff.
I spent four days working in the office of a Congressman who had 20 full-time staff. He had so many staff that he had to have an office manager to run his office. As a committee member—he was the third ranking Republican on a not very prestigious Congressional Committee—he had six highly qualified full-time staff. So this Congressman altogether had 26 staff.
The last thing I would suggest is that we should lumber the taxpayer with 20 assistants for each Member of Parliament, but the gulf between my one and a half assistants and an American Congressman's 26 must be bridged. As government is so complicated, the rôle we are expected to perform is becoming increasingly burdensome and we must have assistance to do our job properly.
The research staff in the Library do a magnificent job, but there are not enough of them. With the breadth and complexity of the various specialisms, we cannot expect the limited number of research staff to master the whole range. We must therefore expand the Library and the research assistance. In performing our tasks within the Committee system we should not only have far more specialist staff to serve the Committee collectively, but we should consider the appointment of staff to Members individually in their Committee rôle.
On the controversial subject of outsiders, I support their inclusion on the investigations Committee. Parliament is not simply our concern; it is the concern of the country as a whole. It is inward-looking to assume that we are the only ones competent to study the problem of parliamentary reform. It has been suggested that outsiders should merely give evidence, but there are many people in the country who could perform a useful 1080 service to us by serving on the Committee. I hope that this Committee will include younger Members of Parliament and that the attitude of new Members of Parliament to reform will be properly recognised when the Committee is set up.
§ 9.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Paul Dean (Somerset, North)
I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) on the need to improve our facilities so that we can do our job more effectively. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), I view reform of procedure with some suspicion. It usually results in the Government of the day getting their business more easily, which makes it more difficult for the House of Commons to do its job properly.
For many years the House has been losing its grip over the Executive. Supply is the most obvious example. The last thing we do on Supply days is discuss Supply. We usually have a party political set-to on a subject thought to contain some political mileage. The Government of the day announce something new and get the headlines. As often as not the Opposition's attack falls fairly flat.
At least in this place we can talk, and that is the main reason why, contrary to what has been said by some hon. Members, I think that to have a restriction of 10 minutes, a quarter of an hour, or any other time on Members' speeches would be a dangerous precedent. The trouble is that we all feel that everyone else talks too often and for too long, and it is a natural reaction to ask the Chair to restrict the length of speeches. It would be a great mistake to formalise this procedure. There are occasions when long speeches are the only weapon that the House of Commons has, and it would be a mistake to deprive ourselves of it.
For the same reason I am against the suggestion that we should sit from nine to five. The House of Commons cannot possibly do its work during normal office hours. To try to put us on predictable tram lines would be a great gift to the Executive of the dav.
§ Mr. Heffer
Will the hon. Gentleman explain why it was possible to do that during the war years whereas it is not possible to do it now?
§ Mr. Dean
I do not think that the war years, when the majority of hon. Members were away doing war service, are in any way a parallel in this context.
There are two areas where the authority of the House has been growing in recent years and which could be developed. The first is the scrutiny in depth of Government expenditure. I am thinking here especially of the Public Accounts Committee. I have not served on the PAC, but I was a member of the former Estimates Committee, now succeeded by the Expenditure Committee. These Committees probably do some of the most effective work in scrutinising the Government of the day.
I believe that there is a strong case for allowing in the television cameras, particularly into the Public Accounts Committee. I know that many hon. Members are against radio and television broadcasting of the House's proceedings, but I suggest that some of their criticisms, which I understand but do not agree with, do not apply to the PAC to anything like the same extent. Would it not be sensible to try to experiment with the PAC to see whether, by making its work even more newsworthy than it is, we could make it still more effective as a weapon with which to control the Government? It would be worth trying.
I do not believe that we shall be successful in getting really effective, well-attended debates in the House itself on the reports of the PAC. First, most of us who do not serve on the Committee would feel it a disadvantage to try to debate subjects which have been gone over so carefully by our colleagues with specialist knowledge. Secondly, if we have confidence in such Committees, it is a mark of that confidence that we do not turn up when their subjects are debated on the Floor of the House. That is why I suggest that the television cameras should be allowed into the PAC's proceedings.
But I believe that the most important area in which progress can be made is in pre-legislation examination. This has been talked about for many years and in recent years it has been developing in a natural way. Whatever one may feel about the outcome of the Select Committees on tax credit, the wealth tax, or abortion law reform, there is the germ 1082 of immense value and significance in their proceedings which we could develop.
Could it not be that the control which the House has lost over Supply might be regained through more effective control over legislation? Legislation is responsible for a great deal of expenditure by the Government. Again, it would give an opportunity to see how legislation looked to the man in the street. One of the difficulties in legislating at present is that, while the Government go through a painstaking process, consulting interests outside, they only informally consult Members of Parliament, and as a result many of the points which will cause real difficulty are probably not fully considered at all. If we in this way could try to take on board how things will look from the point of view of those with a broad commonsense approach but without detailed knowledge, we might well save ourselves a great deal of time and trouble—in other words, by consulting the House of Commons earlier.
We might also find that legislation would stay. One of the sad features of life in recent times—all Oppositions have said it—is the statement, "We will repeal this legislation." Whether that is right or wrong, it tends to undermine respect for the law.
Perhaps the proudest passport that anyone could have and that we in this House all have is to be able to write in a visitor's book anywhere in the world, "House of Commons, Westminster". Nothing more is needed. It is instantly understood. This tradition has developed over the centuries, but it is always evolving, it is never still and rarely has it lost its continuity with the past. It commands the loyalty of succeeding generations of Members of Parliament, each of which is absorbed by the system and adds something new to it.
I am glad to have had this opportunity to say this on the eve of an important House of Common occasion. After all, the Speaker is the standard bearer of Westminster: tomorrow we shall be saluting one great standard bearer and welcoming his successor.
§ 9.21 p.m.
§ Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)
The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), in a characteristically 1083 stimulating and thoughtful speech, identified the vote after debate as the basis of parliamentary procedures. It is certainly the sine qua non of a full attendance of hon. Members, but fortunately it is not equally necessary for the presentation of thoughtful and constructive speeches.
Today's debate has produced a large number of interesting and constructive speeches. It might be said that if Members of Parliament cannot speak thoughtfully and constructively on their own procedures, on what can they do so? This is in a sense a domestic matter—the procedures of our House—but beyond that it has great constitutional and democratic significance. The efficiency of Parliament depends on the adequacy of our procedures and the safeguarding of our liberties and our democratic way of life in turn depend on the efficiency of Parliament.
When last July the Leader of the House announced his proposal to set up a Committee of Review, he gave as his reason that Parliament was not keeping up with changes in the world outside. That seems an over-simplification. After all, there is no unalterable and ineluctable law of nature which prevents Parliament from doing its traditional duty by scrutinising legislation, keeping the Executive in check and controlling public expenditure. No unalterable law of nature says that with the passage of time that becomes an impossible task. It is not a law of nature but the growing volume of legislation and Government business and the growing tendency for Government intervention in the lives of the citizens. Those are the things that overload the business of Parliament and create the problems which we are discussing today.
This debate has certainly stressed and identified the basic truth that the efficacy of our parliamentary procedures must depend on the relationship between Government and Parliament. This was referred to by the Leader of the House, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), in his admirable speech, by the right hon. Member for Down, South and by the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), who referred to the perennial conflict between Government and Parliament.
1084 So whatever adaptations and improvements in our procedures we can make, this House can operate effectively only if the Executive does not place such a load on Parliament that Parliament is forced either to skimp its basic tasks and thereby abandon its traditional functions, or to see its procedures eroded and endangered in an unsuccessful effort to discharge its duties.
The other point which has clearly emerged, in the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon), who made such a striking contribution to the debate, is the general desire on this side of the House, at any rate, to have less legislation but to have that legislation better prepared.
Therefore, the basic position is that Parliament has a duty to see that our procedures are as efficient and contemporary as diligence and ingenuity can achieve. The Government have the corollary duty not so to overload Parliament by legislation and Government business as to make that function impossible.
Over the years, this House has tried conscientiously, if not always successfully, to discharge its duty. But I am not clear that the same can be said of successive Governments. If we look at the history of Parliament, we see that it reflects the continuing attempt to adapt procedures to changing circumstances. Not all that long ago-200 years or so—the major business of Parliament was in the passage of Private and local Acts of Parliament, so Parliament had to adapt itself to the growth of public business.
In the last 30 years, the problems have become insistent, and substantial adaptation has taken place within my own time in this House. The causes are obvious—the growing volume of legislation, the increase of subordinate legislation and Statutory Instruments, the greater involvement of the State and, of course, the greater desire for individual participation by hon. Members.
The solutions have also followed a pattern: the transference of responsibility from the Floor of the House to Committees, the expansion of Committees, both Standing Committees and Select Committees, the use of the guillotine, the curtailment of discussion on Statutory 1085 Instruments, the constitutional innovation, as it then was, of splitting the Finance Bill, traditionally taken in Committee of the whole House, and sending a large part of it upstairs to a Standing Committee. All these changes, in a sense derogating from the traditional functions of Parliament, have been basically accepted as necessary and absorbed into our pattern, though, I am glad to say, not the other step taken by Herbert Morrison of the abolition of Private Members' time, which, fortunately, was a precedent not followed by the House in later Parliaments.
On the other side of the balance sheet, the additions to parliamentary opportunity have been rather less significant—Standing Order No. 9 debates, further Select Committees, and so on. Now we have to consider further adaptation having in mind that, even if the Government are more moderate in passing business to the House, experience leads us to expect that we still have the added burden of the scrutiny of Community legislation.
Basically we have these two related questions. The first is how Parliament can be given an earlier and more effective part in the preparation of legislation and in the decision-making process—a matter referred to by many hon. Members and by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) a moment ago. The second question, related to that, is whether in order to achieve this object, circumstances will necessitate a further transference from the Floor of the House to Committees, especially by an expanded use of the specialist and functional Committees. My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil canvassed the possibility of associating Select Committees with legislation and expanding their rôle generally.
Even though we have what has been called a proliferation of Select Committees, we have only a shadow of such a system today in that their function is largely investigatory and interrogatory and does not impinge directly on the legislative function. We have to remember that in this approach we differ from that part of the world where parliamentary institutions are not derived directly from the Westminster model—for example, the United States and the EEC.
1086 We have to ask ourselves whether we should gain more advantage from giving a greater rôle to the functional Committees. Could it help in the attainment of the major objective of achieving for Parliament an earlier and more effective rôle in the formulation of policy and legislation? Or are there other methods which are more in keeping with our orthodox approach?
The question of the development of specialist Committees has to be considered, although at present it is a matter only for consideration. It would, after all, be a radical change in our legislative process in favour of a system that most of us know only at second hand. The argument in favour is obvious—that it more easily associates Parliament with the legislative processes in a formative stage. One of the weaknesses of our present system, which has been identified by several hon. Members today, is that it does not do that.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) described in graphic terms some of the limitations in our present proceedings and in particular the lack of rapport between the Civil Service in its formulative context and Back Bench Members. It is true that in our present system amendments are possible, but at a later stage, after the Government have presented Parliament with the measure in the precise form in which they hope to see it enacted. Therefore, in our procedures amendments have to be won in, as it were, an atmosphere of confrontation.
If opportunity for consultation existed at an earlier stage, it is more likely that the pattern and content of legislation could be affected before the mould has hardened. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Osborn), I have some experience of functional committees in the other Parliament in which we sit. Although the European Parliament is not a law-making body and although its function is defined as consultative and not legislative, it can and does exercise influence on Community legislation.
That is primarily because the Commission brings to the functional committees not the finished products of legislation but drafts. Those drafts are discussed both as to principle and detailed content in the committees with representatives of the 1087 Commission sitting in and participating, answering the questions of parliamentarians and subjecting themselves to their criticisms. In that way influence is brought to bear in the formative stages, and the Commission views Parliament not as strangers or even as enemies attacking its concepts from without, but as fellow workers in the task of formulating legislation.
A precise example of that is the Fifth Directive on Company Law. It was brought to the Parliament, criticised, not insisted on, taken back and has now been resubmitted, not in the form of a draft directive, but in the form of a Green Paper for consideration and discussion. My point is not that we should follow the procedure of the European Parliament or take it as a model. It is more general. If the influence of an assembly which is not law-making in function can be brought to bear in the formative stages of legislation, surely we, as the mother of Parliaments with centuries of law-making experience, can do the same.
This much is certain, however it is done—whether by development of a functional system or by improvement of present methods, perhaps by adding a preliminary or investigatory process to Standing Committees or by introducing a hybrid Committee between the Standing and Select Committees—Parliament should be associated earlier and more closely with the making of laws. At a time when there is so much demand for public participation in decision-making, we should at least secure full and meaningful parliamentary participation by way of the development of Green Paper techniques and otherwise.
It is always a good thing when Governments sound the will of Parliament before commitment to fixed positions. We want less legislation if possible—certainly less detailed legislation—which is a matter primarily for Government. We want simpler legislation, as was stressed by the Renton Committee. I join with other hon. Members in paying tribute to the work of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton). As is pointed out there, both Government and Parliament have a part to play. We want a closer, earlier and more effective role for Parliament in the formative stages of 1088 legislation and the decision-making which gives rise to it.
Whatever course is pursued by way of development and possible changes in our Committee procedures, I hope that equal attention will be given to a full and meaningful role for proceedings on the Floor of the House so that it can remain, or perhaps be restored to being, the real forum of the nation. There are four requisites for that: adequate and effective control of legislation; adequate and effective control of public spending; full and timely opportunity to debate Community matters; and a full opportunity for timely debate on matters of public interest generally, with appropriate procedures to enable the House to debate in a way which will command the attention and respect of the nation.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil said that Report stage had become somewhat emaciated of late. Therefore, whatever Committee system is adopted, we must retain, or perhaps restore, the efficacy of the Report stage for, at any rate, substantial and controversial legislation. Examination in Committee is a preliminary. It is an indispensable foundation, not a substitute. I think that is why the Select Committee on Procedure rejected the Lord President's proposal to extend the application of Standing Order No. 73 by sending more Bills for Report to Standing Committees. That suggestion, as he knows, foundered on the difficulty of finding an intermediate category of Bills between the basically controversial and the wholly uncontroversial suitable for Standing Order No. 66 procedure.
We can and should pursue the possibility of classifying legislation, as has been said, but in any assessment of whether measures are sufficiently controversial to warrant retention on the Floor of the House, any doubt should be resolved in favour of retention. After all, Parliament exists in considerable degree to apply democratic methods to the resolution of controversy. That, indeed, is what it is all about.
I think that we should do that and apply the recommendations of the Renton Committee. Again, I dig into that gold-mine, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham called it. Paragraph 105 of the summary lays down a minimum timetable for legislation: two 1089 weekends for the initial study; 14 days from Second Reading to Committee; 14 days between Committee and Report. I think that in putting that forward my right hon. and learned Friend, like Clive of old, can stand astounded at his own moderation. It is a minimum, reasonable requirement.
I should like to refer to the control of public spending, but time does not allow. I pass it in any event because my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), in his capacity as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, made an admirable speech on that subject a week or two back in which he pointed out that it was now clear to all that Government spending was out of control, and he indicated various measures. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham have added further suggestions this afternoon.
Control of public spending will have a great impact on people outside. Certainly it would have a great impact on those outside people brought in as members of the Committee, if they were brought in. I do not think that they should be brought in as members of the Committee or as assessors. They should be summoned to give evidence and their evidence should be attended to. It is not a question of self-sufficiency or of arrogance, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) suggested: far from it. Parliament must avoid giving any impression of complacency or self-sufficiency. Certainly it should not repel legitimate outside interest in our procedures or resent outside criticism of them, but decisions must be taken and responsibility accepted by Members of Parliament. We must, after all, by virtue of our elected capacity, assume undivided responsibility for the great affairs of the nation, and what would be the comment if we said that without outside assistance we could not even regulate our own affairs?
With regard to the scrutiny of Community legislation, my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) made a characteristically clear and compelling analysis of the position. We have to devise methods of dealing with these new matters, but there is nothing new in that. Earlier generations of parliamentarians had to devise methods of pro- 1090 viding law and administration for the colonies of a largely expanding empire. We have to make provision for this so-called secondary legislation, but primary in the sense that these draft regulations and directives when finalised govern so much of our economic life.
We have mixed feelings about this—pleasure at the way in which the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee have tackled the task of screening and identification, and disappointment at the arrangements that the Government have made for discussion of these vital matters. There are problems of timing, and so on, but the vital thing is that our Ministers should know the views and the will of Parliament clearly and in time for them to take them into account in the presentation of their case.
I come to my last point, that of participation. In earlier days there was no problem. In the days when Parliament sat for six months of the year, Parliament was a focus of interest. Speeches were printed in extenso in the Press and read. There were the speeches of Burke and Fox, Pitt and Canning, and most Back-Bench Members were content to listen and applaud. But now Parliament has become a workshop with a general desire for participation and it is natural, therefore, that Members should have their preferred solutions.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) and my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) made eloquent pleas for speeches to be limited to 10 minutes. That idea was turned down by the Select Committee on Procedure. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West said that was due to the right hon. Member for Down, South. I would be the last to underestimate the right hon. Gentleman's mesmeric qualities on the Select Committee, but the Committee gave some powerful reasons for its views, and I would add one: it inhibits debate and prevents the interruptions which give vitality to our proceedings.
I go along with the suggestion in paragraph 13 of the Report that we should have an experiment of one hour during which there would be six 10-minute speeches which would enable points to be pithily put and would relieve hon. Members 1091 of the frustration of going home with their notes in their pockets and their hearts in their boots, reflecting in a melancholy way on the unhappy paradox that the speeches we do not make are always so much better than those that we do.
Question Time is the specialité de maison of the House of Commons, and we realise how good it is when we see the efforts to transplant it to other Assemblies. But it has the limitation, however, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) said, that one gets only one supplementary question, and anybody who has done any cross-examination knows that the first few questions are paving questions and one hopes to take the man's wicket with about the fifth or sixth question down the line. That cannot be helped in the House of Commons.
My right hon. and learned Friend suggested that Questions should be directed more to eliciting information. It is funny that we should think that such a paradoxical object in asking a Question, but as a lawyer he will recall the basic forensic principle that one never asks a question to which one does not know the answer.
I conclude by saying that, like all other Members, I have enjoyed and am immensely interested in the suggestions put forward. There is great scope for improvement and the best results will come from a combination of parliamentary action and the Government's recognition that business must be conditioned by the extent to which Parliament, operating under its best procedures, can give the full scrutiny and consideration that is required in a democratic society. I am confident that, in spite of the many inescapable restraints imposed by circumstances, the House will address itself with a receptive mind, with objectivity and becoming humility, to devising the best procedures to enable it to perform the tasks laid upon it.
§ 9.46 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Privy Council Office (Mr. William Price)
This has been an interesting and constructive debate, and perhaps even wider than we anticipated. It lost nothing as a result of that. Indeed, that was what my 1092 right hon. Friend the Lord President wanted. I repeat his assurance that the Government will give the most careful consideration to everything that has been said. We believe—I am sure that there is agreement about this—that this is a matter upon which the majority view of the House should prevail.
When I first came here in 1966 I became involved, among other things, with a group which was interested in parliamentary reform. We were going to bring about the revolution. If necessary, we were prepared to tear the place down and start all over again. What was good enough for Simon de Montfort was not going to be good enough for us.
I well remember an old Member telling me in the Tea Room "Lad, we hear this with every new intake. Every General Election produces its revolutionaries. And they soon give up. Take it easy, son. This place grows on you." And it has, despite a long and sustained resistance.
I think we have come a long way in the past 10 years. We have made progress on pay and legitimate expenses in the face of considerable public hostility. Conditions for many Members are far better than they were. There have been useful improvements to our procedures. But I think we are entitled to ask whether we have gone far enough, whether we have really adapted to present-day circumstances and whether our procedures are really attuned to a young, anxious, suspicious and questioning society.
I fear that—in the eyes of many of my constituents—Parliament has declined during my 10 years here. I suspect that people see it becoming ever more remote, out of touch with their problems, unaware and too often unconcerned about the difficulties facing many of our people. I think that those are unfair criticisms, but they exist. [Interruption.] There may not be any evidence here, but there is a good deal in the pubs in my constituency. We ought to ask ourselves how much of that feeling, if I am right—and there appears to be some dispute about it—is due to the fact that we conduct our affairs in a way which many people would find it impossible to understand, assuming that they were interested enough to want to do so.
1093 I well remember those long nights during the Industrial Relations Bill. I would get back to my constituency and boast that I had been up for the past three or four nights. I found that 90 per cent. of the people did not know what we had been doing and that the other 10 per cent. thought we were mad. In the days when people knew little about the ways of Parliament, perhaps it did not matter too much. In my view, today it does. I hope we shall soon get permanent radio broadcasting, and, one day, television as well. It is more than ever necessary that we should get it right.
That is why the Lord President wants the review to be as wide as possible. We hope that it will have terms of reference which will enable it to consider anything and everything of importance to Members of this House. I hope that it will look closely at the changes of recent years. Much of what we have done has inevitably been piecemeal. What we now have to consider is where we go from here, how we keep the best of what we have—and I happen to believe that much of it is good—and how we build upon it.
§ Mr. Peyton
The hon. Gentleman is talking as if his right hon. Friend had put firm proposals to the House. I hope he will make it clear that he has done nothing of the kind, especially as regards the suggestion that the review body should contain outsiders.
§ Mr. Heffer
Will the proposals to set up the Committee come back to this House so that we may take a decision?
§ Mr. Price
Yes; I certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance.
The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) referred to the need to reinforce 1094 effective government. He argued that reform had been wholly for the benefit of the Executive. Some of us would like to reinforce effective opposition as well, particularly the rôle of Back Benchers within the Opposition and on both sides of the House.
I am not as far removed as some from the Back Benches. Indeed, they beckon me every day. During my modest two years on the Front Bench I have become ever more sympathetic to my former colleagues. I see lined up against them the full weight of ministerial Whitehall and Civil Service talent, to say nothing of special advisers. It is an uneven and unfair contest. What is of interest is that Ministers still manage to lose arguments with splendid regularity. Therefore, I hope that we shall be able to strengthen the right and powers of Back Benchers. It can be argued with some justification that the present Leader of the House has played, and he will continue to play, a full part in that process.
The argument that I found difficult to accept from the right hon. Member for Yeovil was that over the years Opposition time had been whittled away. I suspect that detailed research would prove the opposite. I should like to carry out that research and send it to him. If I am wrong, I shall endeavour to put the matter right at the first opportunity. I believe that the matter is worth examining.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the muddle of our procedure and the difficulty that new Members experience is understanding it. I must tell him that it is not only the new Members who have that problem. I suspect that most hon. Members would ask the Committee "Please make matters more simple if you can."
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Question Time. I do not think we have any complaint about Prime Ministers. I am talking about time rather than content. I know of few Parliaments which subject their Prime Ministers to two such sessions a week. The case is stronger in regard to other Cabinet Ministers. I take the view that 10 minutes of the Lord President and myself every four or six weeks is depriving the House of 1095 badly-needed sustenance. Clearly, Question Time is of crucial importance to both sides of the House, particularly Back Benchers, and I expect the Committee to look closely at that matter.
It has become apparent that the question of outsiders being included in the Committee may prove difficult. The speech made by the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) destroyed almost everything I meant to say on that subject. He made a most persuasive speech against which I find it difficult to argue. I know that there is a great deal of opposition to outsiders being included.
I ask the House to consider this question. Are we arguing that nobody other than a Member of this House ought to be allowed to take a look at our procedures? Is no one outside qualified to give us advice, guidance and criticism? This is a Parliament of the people, for the people. I see little wrong with letting those people take a look at the way we operate on their behalf. After all, we spend a great deal of time telling other people how to conduct their affairs.
§ Mr. Channon
Hon. Members on both sides are unanimous on this matter. Surely the hon. Gentleman has listened to the debate and should accept what has been said.
§ Mr. Price
Opinion has not been unanimous. I have spent more time in the Chamber today than has the hon. Gentleman. He is wrong and I am right. I have recognised that there is a good deal of opposition on that matter, and my right hon. Friend the Lord President will no doubt consider everything that has been said.
The right hon. Member for Knutsford raised the question of European legislation. This is a matter of great importance. All I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is that we are in fresh fields. I do not accept all his criticisms, but it is apparent that we are still finding our feet. I would expect the Committee to consider this matter in great detail.
The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) saw it all as a devious plot to strengthen the Executive. I personally hope and believe that he is wrong about that. If that were the 1096 Government's intention, I have enough faith in Back Benchers on both sides of the House to deal with that situation. I thought that the Lord President made his position clear.
A number of hon. Members have raised the problem of unsocial hours and their effect on family life. We shall not get much sympathy from the public. They will tell us that we need not have joined and point to the queue of 200 hopefuls every time a safe seat becomes vacant. But it is not as simple as that. I do not object to long hours. All I would ask is that they be a little more regular and standardised. My only real regret about being a Member of this House is the fact that often I do not see my two young children from Sunday night until Friday afternoon. That is a severe price for any father to pay.
I find it difficult to understand the nonsense of the parliamentary year and the need to finish everything in a mad last-minute scramble. Nor do I understand why we cannot go from 1st January until 31st December and start again in the new year if we did not finish everything in the old one.
The oddest feature of all to me has always been the July caper—sitting day and night so that we can then disappear for 11 or 12 weeks, for the benefit of the Government of the day. I would gladly give up four or those weeks for a little more sense in the rest of the Session. We all know that many Members had their holiday plans ruined last year. Life is difficult enough. There is no case for making it impossible. I want to take my children to the seaside occasionally, and so do others. I am prepared to make sacrifices, but there is a limit. We all spend our lives fighting to improve the lot of our people. There is no reason why we should not look occasionally at our own business, social and family life.
I am conscious of the fact, Mr. Speaker, that this is your last full-scale debate. The tributes to you will be made to-morrow, but I would like to thank you for all the kindness, help and courtesy you have shown to my generation of Members over the years and to me personally. When I sat here some years ago and watched you take the Chair for the 1097 first time, I thought what a damned silly procedure that was. The only consolation was that we made the right choice. With that happy thought, I hope that the Committee might find alternative ways of persuading your successors to the Chair.
I am speaking for myself, which is perhaps just as well. I believe that the ideas put to the House by my right hon. 1098 Friend the Lord President point the way forward. They are constructive and based upon a need for fairly radical reform. My own wish, for what it is worth, can be summed up in one sentence: A little less of Government and a little more of Parliament.
§ Question, That this House do now adjourn, put, and negatived.