§ Mr. Speaker
Before I call the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to move the first motion, it might help if I were to make clear to the House that the terms of the business motion to which the House has just agreed provide for two separate debates. The debate upon which we are about to embark covers items 1 to 10 on the Order Paper and is due to finish at 10 o'clock, when all the necessary Questions will be put on the motions and on the various amendments that I have selected. A list of amendments is available in the Lobby, in the usual way. During the first debate it will not be in order to discuss items 11 to 18, comment on which should be reserved for the separate debate of one and a half hours' duration, which will begin as soon as item 10 has been disposed of.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps you can help the House a little further. Your concluding sentence complies that you wish to take the substance of motions 1 to 10 during discussion on the first motion and that the motions and any amendments will then be moved formally. The alternative implication is that the first debate will involve procedure motion No. 1 with its amendment, and that we shall proceed thereafter on separate debates.
§ Mr. Speaker
If the House wishes, we shall have a debate on all 10. We shall cover items 1 to 10 until 10 o'clock. At 10 o'clock, I shall put any amendments that hon. Members may wish to move on those first items.
§ Mr. Spearing
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for not having made earlier enquiries. There are a number of items to which several amendments have been tabled. If one is to try to cover not only the substance of motion No. 1 but also several amendments to different motions—as is true in my case and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay)—in one speech, and if they are all to be decided at 10 pm, the House will be in great difficulty. I regret not having made the orginal inquiry, but I had expected that we would be taking motion No. 1 with its amendment and No. 2 seriatim 717 throughout together with the amendments as they came.
§ Mr. Speaker
It may be that the hon. Gentleman will have no discussion at all on some of the matters that he wishes to raise if that is so. Even if we follow the advice of the hon. Member, the House has decided that at 10 o'clock I must put the Questions on motions Nos. 1 to 10. If it pleases the House better—it is not without precedent—to group matters together to enable Members to make their respective speeches across the broad spectrum—we did it recently with amendments on salaries, and so on—there is nothing to stop us from moving seriatim. However, I hope that there will be no complaint if the further amendments have to be put without discussion at the end.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I was not raising a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was getting up to begin my oration.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)
We have passed the business motion, Mr. Speaker. I am relatively new to this procedure, but, as I understand it, in general this procedure has been adopted in procedure debates. I am not sure that this is technically a point of order. My right hon. and hon. Friends have some interesting amendments on the Order Paper. Do we assume that at the end of the debate the Leader of the House will wind up so that, if my right hon. and hon. Friends have already spoken, they will not be able to speak a second time, but at least the reply by the Leader of the House to their points will be made before we vote?
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Do I understand that we are to have just one debate from now until 10 o'clock covering all these subjects and with votes at the end? It does not appear to me to be a logical or convenient way to act, but, if that is the decision no doubt it is possible to carry on that way. I understand that that is what is intended.
§ Mr. Speaker
I agree that that is what we are embarking upon. We are to have one wide debate in which Members may make their separate points and have a reply at the end.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have followed this procedure on two previous occasions and it has worked reasonably well. We have had our general debate and Members have been able to vote at the end. It has worked satisfactorily.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
On a different point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you be good enough to put the Question separately on paragraph (8) of amendment (a) to motion No. 1? There is a special reason. The proposed new Standing Order appears on the Order Paper with the side headingInstruments subject to affirmative procedure.However, when one gets to paragraph (8) one discovers that that refers not to instruments but to measures. Measures are totally different. The arguments for and against that are different from the arguments concerning instruments. I think that it would be for the convenience of the House if the Questions were put, say, on paragraphs (1) to (7), then on paragraph (8) and then on paragraphs (9) to (14). That would enable the House, if it wished, to pass the amendment in so far as it is compatible with the side heading on the Order Paper but not as it applies to measures, for which the arguments are totally different. Alternatively, if, in your judgment, Mr. Speaker, that is inconvenient, would you accept a manuscript amendment merely to leave out paragraph (8) of this amendment, which is the other way of doing it?
§ Mr. Speaker
As regards a manuscript amendment, I should point out that the hon. Member had the opportunity of tabling an amendment if he felt strongly about it, because this is not the first day that this amendment has been on the Order Paper. It is one amendment. It would be a very untidy business if I started by saying that we would deal with this one clause by clause. It is one amendment, proposed by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English). If the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) does not like it, his choice is to reject all of it.
§ Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas
I beg to move,That this House takes note of recommendations (4) to (30) and (66) to (70) of the First Report of the Select Committee on Procedure in Session 1977–78.I believe that this is an important day in the history of the House of Commons, because the House has the opportunity of completing its work in relation to the epoch-making report on procedure which was published just over two years ago, the Committee having been appointed in June 1976.
I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Warrington (Sir T. Williams), the Chairman of the Committee, on the important work that he and the members of the Committee performed in relation to the report. With that I should like to associate my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) for his zeal and judgment in enabling matters, I trust, to have a happy ending today.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
I know that the right hon. Gentleman wants to start the debate in the right atmosphere. He said that the House had the opportunity of completing the work done by the Select Committee, to which he referred in kindly terms. I hope that he will in some way recognise that we cannot do that unless we make progress on the amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), because that deals with the statutory instruments procedure, a major part of the Committee's work, which is not dealt with in the motions.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
That may be so, but it has been open to any Member of the House to put down amendments, as did the hon. Member for Nottingham, 720 West (Mr. English). I welcome his amendment. I should have welcomed any amendments which other hon. Members might have put down.
At the general election there was a pledge in the constitutional section of the Conservative Party's manifesto which welcomed the report and promised that the House would be given an early chance of coming to a decision on its proposals.
There were 76 recommendations in six different sections. Clearly it would have been impossible to dispose of all those at a stroke. Therefore, the matter has been before the House on three separate occasions. The first was 25 June 1979, when the 14 Select Committees were set up constituting the system of departmentally related Select Committees. The second was 31 October 1979, when a wide variety of lesser but important proposals was put before the House, including the recommendations of the 10 Sessional Committees which had been lying about neglected literally for years. Eighteen motions were put forward on that occasion covering matters such as Sessions and sittings, early morning sittings on Fridays, the Opposition's right to vote on their own motions on Supply days, the experiment inaugurated by Mr. Speaker limiting the length of speeches by hon. Members at certain times on Second Reading debates and the motion, which was defeated, to modify the Standing Order No. 9 procedure. Now, almost exactly a year later, on 30 October 1980, the House has an opportunity to decide on the remaining recommendations of the Procedure Committee with amendments.
The motions cover three particular areas: first, the Public Bill procedure; secondly, European legislation; and, thirdly, the manner in which the House handles financial matters and Supply.
Looking back to the beginning of the Session, we have been beset by many vicissitudes before reaching the point we have arrived at today. Not everyone is an enthusiast for reform of our procedures. When the Committees were set up, there were some who wished to go no further. Nevertheless, the second stage was reached on schedule and now, after very considerable difficulties, we have arrived at the third stage.
This is the fourth date that I have proposed for the third stage of the proceedings. For a full account of the saga, the 721 House will have to await my memoirs. But I recall setting this down in August; it was then swept away by a little local difficulty; and earlier this week there was another one, the Home Secretary's Bill on imprisonment. At last, however, we have arrived and I am reasonably hopeful that nothing is likely to happen to postpone a vote on these matters yet again.
The motions before us today are hardly intelligible unless they are seen in the wider context of the role of parliamentary government and procedure. Of course, parliamentary government is a misnomer. Apart from that unfortunate interlude in the seventeenth century—and we all know what happened then—Parliament has never made any claim to govern. The function of government is carried out in reality by the Cabinet.
Since the second Reform Act of 1867, the Cabinet has succeeded in dominating the legislative programme, with certain exceptions. The House of Commons, apart, alas, from the restricted role of the private Member, no longer initiates legislation. The power of initiating legislation has passed in practice to the Cabinet. The powers which undoubtedly remain to this House are, first, that this House legitimises the decisions and proposals of the Cabinet and, secondly, scrutinises them and the legislation and the other measures which are placed before the House by the Government or on occasions by private Members.
In order to fulfil this second function, the function of checking and scrutiny, we rely upon our procedures. We have no constitution in this country; we have only procedure—hence its importance.
Our debate today may lack the flash and the sparkle, and the thunder and the lightning, of yesterday's occasion, when we had the added excitement of the two principal candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party paraded before us. I reflect, by comparison with that choice, that the American people are being offered in the presidential election there an embarras de richesse. I congratulate the Shadow Leader of the House on his witty and brilliant speech yesterday, but I do not know that it will do him much good. People are suspicious of witticisms. They associate them with Oscar Wilde and other undesirable persons. [AN. HON. MEMBER: "Like you."] Unlike me—but 722 Mr. Wilde had the further disadvantage of being an author. The truth is that in politics it is safer to be a co-respondent than a wit.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
That rather proves my point.
In order to fulfil its role, Parliament has continually to renew its procedures. At certain points, we have had really major changes. One such moment came in the 1870s, when the Government were in the process of taking over the arrangements of this House from the private Member and arrogating them to themselves. Then, in the 1880s, owing to the disrupting tactics of Parnell and the Irish party, we had the closure introduced, which was followed by the guillotine. In the early 1900s, we had the Balfour reforms, and in the 1960s we had the changes introduced by Richard Cross-man. In the 1980s, we have another opportunity in this House to change and develop our procedures.
Behind all these debates and reforms there is a single unifying purpose: to redress the imbalance which has developed between Whitehall and Westminster and to enable the Commons to exercise its legislative and scrutiny functions more efficiently and effectively.
That is why one can claim—and I did claim it—that the setting up of the departmentally related Select Committees was one of the most important parliamentary reforms of the century. Some people thought that that was hyperbole. Understatement has never been by strong suit, but I believe that, in the experience that we have had of the working of these Committees up to now, those words have been fully justified. The dynamic contribution that these Committees have made has affected not only the Westminster scene but the Whitehall scene as well. That contribution has been made not only on specific matters; their influence is felt throughout the Government. No one, for example, who has studied the activities of the Treasury and Civil Service Committee could doubt that that Committee is an extremely influential part of the governmental protest—process
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
None of us is perfect—except. of course, the hon. Gentleman.
I attended that Committee the other day, and I was extremely impressed by the contrast between the in-depth interrogation and dialogue which was possible between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Committee and the somewhat perfunctory exchange of views which takes place at a normal Question Time. It is not that I think that Question Time is unimportant, but one can pursue a question in depth at a Select Committee in a way which is valuable both to Ministers and the members of the Committee.
Thus, I believe that these Committees are dispelling the view, widely held a decade ago, that Parliament has become a mere amateur body incapable of scrutinising effectively the work of the Executive. Not all Ministers welcome this fact, but every Minister has co-operated to the full with the work of these Committees.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I proposed to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne), but then I must get on. The hon. Gentleman will have his own opportunities to speak.
§ Mr. Bruce-Gardyne
I listened with care to my right hon. Friend's eulogy of the new Committee system. However, I wonder whether he has devoted any scrutiny to the amount of time which the Whitehall machine now has to devote to these Committees, because I think that he should do so in order to assure himself that the additional load which has been placed on the Whitehall machine is justified by the product.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I have had no complaints at all from any civil servant about the work of these Committees. The Civil Service has co-operated fully with the Committees. I do not take my hon. Friend's premise. One should not think of it in terms of a load being placed on Whitehall. It is the duty of Whitehall to meet the needs of this House and the citizens whom we represent.
In preparation for this debate, I had, as right hon. and hon. Members will 724 know, consulted very widely in the House before the recess. These consultations showed, on the one hand, a general wish for Parliament to continue to adapt its procedures to provide more effective scrutiny. They also showed a recognition that Governments, of whatever party, have a legitimate need to secure the passage of their legislation. Those are the two aims that I have had to keep in balance.
There is one other general point that I should like to emphasise. We have to ensure that the procedures of the House do not place unreasonable or unnecessary demands on hon. Members. The House already carries a heavy legislative burden and the hours of sitting, taking account of Select Committees and Standing Committees, are long by the standards of other legislatures. It is the Government's aim that in future Sessions the burden of legislation in the House can be made less onerous by the simple expedient, although difficult to achieve in practice, of having less of it.
In the first group concerning Public Bill procedure, the most important recommendation is recommendation (5), wherebyStanding Committees … should in future be permitted to have up to three sittings in select committee form for the purpose of taking evidence in public.As the House will see, the Government have tabled a motion based on that recommendation. I must make clear the basis on which we have done so.
Looking at the evidence given to the Procedure Committee and taking account of my recent consultations, there can be no doubt that many hon. Members find the present line-by-line scrutiny of legislation in Standing Committee an inadequate means of examining a Bill. It is equally clear, however, that there are very different views on the best way of improving the present procedure. Some would like a pre-legislation Committee set up to examine proposals before Bills are introduced. My personal preference would be in that direction.
Others would like the majority of Bills examined through the Select Committee procedure as well as, or instead of, the present Standing Committee arrangements. The Procedure Committee's recommendation is very much in the nature of a compromise between leaving things 725 as they are and these more radical proposals.
The Government's view is that acceptance of the recommendation would provide a means of improving the scrutiny of some of the Bills that come before us, especially where the differences of opinion cut across party lines. What we have in mind is that we should next Session undertake an experiment with the new procedure and, if the House accepts the motion that we have tabled, select perhaps three Government Bills which raise substantial issues, not of acute party controversy, and refer them to a special Standing Committee.
The Procedure Committee itself recognised the need for any Government to retain control of the legislative timetable, and that is why the motion proposes that the new evidence-taking session should be concluded within 28 days from the date of the committal of the Bill.
It is in the nature of any experiment that the way in which it works will emerge only as we gain experience. My consultations have, however, shown a real anxiety that the new procedures should not compromise the accepted impartiality of the present Chairmen of Standing Committees. That is why we are seeking power for you. Mr. Deputy Speaker, to nominate a right honourable or honourable Member to take the chair during the new evidence-taking sessions when, if the practice of the present Select Committees is followed, the Chairman will play an active part.
I would expect that Government Departments and interested outside organisations would be invited to give evidence to the new Committees, but that is a matter for the Committees. The Minister in charge of a Bill referred to a special Standing Committee will, of course, be a member of the Committee throughout its proceedings, and be able both to take part, if that is appropriate, in the questioning of witnesses, and himself to appear as a witness at the evidence-taking sessions if that is necessary. I believe that conventions will be worked out to facilitate this novel and dual role of assistance to the Committee. Other Ministers with an interest in the Bills concerned will make themselves available to give evidence as required by the Committees.
726 The motion before the House provides for this experiment to be undertaken for a single Session, but we might well need to prolong it beyond that before reaching a final judgment on its effectiveness.
We also ask the House to agree to an experiment—I shall find the right notation.
§ Mr. English
Perhaps it will help if I make the intervention now that the right hon. Gentleman asked me to make at a later stage. He said earlier that every Minister had assisted the Select Committees. He should make it clear that there is one exception to that. The Lord Chancellor has not assisted in that way because his entire responsibility is cut out of the Home Affairs Committee's jurisdiction. That means, for example, that the Home Affairs Committee could, if it wished, discuss the Security Services of the State but could not discuss the Public Record Office.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I listened to most of the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I have taken it on board and I shall be interested to hear it further adumbrated should the hon. Gentleman catch the eye of the Chair.
I turn to the experiment covering the same Bills on the lines of recommendation (6) in the Procedure Committee's report. A special Standing Committee could reconvene before reporting the Bill to the House for the purpose of considering amendments arising from undertakings given in Committee. We shall have to see whether this succeeds in saving subsequent time on Report. I should perhaps add that Hansard will be responsible for reporting the proceedings in these Committees. I understand that this may have implications for the present rules 727 on making transcripts available to Members.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I shall be grateful if I am allowed to continue and perhaps to reply to any issues that the right hon. Gentleman raises at the end of the debate, otherwise I shall not get through what I have to say.
§ Mr. Powell
I appreciate that, but I think that it would be germane if at this stage the right hon. Gentleman would recognise that we are here being asked to combine in one Standing Order two completely separate experiments directed to completely different problems, and that there is no reason why the new type of Standing Committee should be an appropriate test bed for the second experiment.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I appreciate that point, but we must see how these experiments work. I shall consider the right hon. Gentleman's intervention and return to it when I reply to the debate.
Recommendation (8) proposes the prescription by Standing Order of minimum intervals between the stages of Bills, and recommendation (9) proposes a number of changes in the present procedures for guillotine motions. The Government accept the spirit of both these recommendations. I hope the House would agree, that it is not necessary to enshrine them in Standing Orders.
As regards guillotines, I think I can legitimately claim at the end of a very long and busy Session that the Government, unlike some of their predecessors, have been sparing in the use of the guillotine. But if the precise recommendations of the Procedure Committee were embodied in Standing Orders it might on occasion mean that more time would be taken up in what are never very constructive debates.
I turn now to the section of the report dealing with delegated legislation. The House will see that the Government have not tabled any motions recommending implementations in this section of the report. I should explain why. It is certainly not because we regard the recommendations as unimportant or be- 728 cause we think that the present arrangements are in all respects satisfactory. But we believe that the proposals made by the Procedure Committee have their own difficulties. For instance—recommendation (15)—it is both our view and our practice that debates on statutory instruments and prayers should not be held until the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has had the opportunity to consider the instrument concerned. But there must occasionally arise circumstances—and Ministers will do all they can to keep them as few as possible—when there is an overriding need for an immediate debate.
The most important recommendation in this group is probably recommendation (18), which seeks to give more powers to the existing Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments. The problem here is that the changes proposed would lengthen the time spent by Members in these Committees and would require more Members to be present, and it is not always easy to secure Members' attendance. On balance, we have concluded that we should not advise the House to make these particular changes.
Finally, in dealing with delegated legislation, there are recommendations (19), (20) and (21). They are addressed to the House and its Committees rather than to the Government. It is not, in our view, necessary to make any amendment to Standing Orders to achieve the object of these recommendations.
I express the appreciation of the House to the two Chairmen of the Standing Committees who are here today for the work that they do. It is very dreary and painstaking work. It takes up a great deal of time and does not receive much recognition. It is in the best traditions of this House that the work is voluntarily undertaken by hon. Members.
I now turn, if I may, to the recommendations on European Community legislation. This is a subject of considerable interest to Members on both sides of the House, and I hope that the House will therefore forgive me if I go through the relevant recommendations—(22) to (30)—in a fair amount of detail.
I am happy to endorse the recommendations—(23) and (24)—that there should be no extension of the powers of the 729 Select Committee in European legislation and that departmentally related Select Committees should be free to consider the merits of European Community documents within their own sphere of influence. It must be right that consideration of merits falls to the specialist Committees. I congratulate the Scrutiny Committee on implementing recommendation (24) to supply the Select Committees with material relating to documents in their own field. The Government are also willing to supply such material in the usual way.
Recommendation (25) is a key recommendation. It recommends a declaratory resolution setting out the circumstances in which the Government should be permitted to give their approval to European Community legislation. I say "European Community" as we are concerned with legislation made under the Euratom Treaty and European Coal and Steel Community Treaty as well as under the European Economic Community Treaty itself. As witnessed by the undertaking I gave the House on 13 July last year, the Government readily agree that wherever possible the House should have the opportunity to discuss documents recommended to it by the Scrutiny Committee prior to agreement being given in Brussels. I believe that the House would value a voluntary undertaking being framed as a declaratory resolution of the House.
Both the Government and the Scrutiny Committee have thought long about the content of such a resolution. I am happy that the Scrutiny Committee has reached a similar conclusion to our own. The resolution embodied in the motion we have tabled follows very closely the wording provided by the Scrutiny Committee. In so doing, it departs from the suggestion of the Procedure Committee, which favoured a firm commitment never to give final approval to a document which still requires debate. I do not think that this is realistic; and I am not convinced that a totally binding resolution would best serve the interests of the United Kingdom.
Of course, the Government should make every effort to ensure that a debate is held, but we cannot avoid the rare occasion when world and Community events move so fast that there is no time to do so. Our Summer Recess alone can give rise to problems because the Council of Min- 730 isters meets in every month except for August. I consider that the provision that a Minister must at the first opportunity explain to the House the reason for giving agreement prior to a debate should safeguard that exceptions to the general rule are made only when it is absolutely necessary. And I believe our practice since the election has followed that course.
§ Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Erdington)
One of the questions that has been raised is how the report of the Scrutiny Committee should be given to the House. I intend to deal with that later.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I shall be interested to hear any suggestions from the hon. Member about that report.
I turn to the recommendations that the Government should provide time for debates. Time has passed since the recommendations were made and I think that these are largely met. It has become the general practice to table motions which express a view of the proposals under debate. I shall certainly consider any suggestions that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman) makes.
If come now to the important recommendation (28) concerning Standing Committee procedure. As the House will see from the motion, we have recognised that consideration of European Community documents is different from that of our own statutory instruments and have therefore tabled separate Standing Orders. The House has not found the existing procedure satisfactory and it has therefore been necessary to take many documents at a late hour on the Floor of the House. The Procedure Committee suggested detailed changes. I believe the core to be that the debate should take place on an amendable motion which puts all debates on Community documents, whether on the Floor or upstairs, on a par and that up to two and a half hours should be allowed.
From my soundings, I do not think that there is a general will to abolish the right of 20 or more Members to block a reference upstairs. Nor do I see a need to complicate the Orders by adding that where a reference is blocked time must be found within seven days on the Floor. I hope that the House will agree that a two-arid-a-half-hour discussion on an 731 amendable motion at a reasonable time of day is a considerable improvement.
Recommendation (29), to keep the House informed of the progress of documents through the often lengthy proceedings of Community institutions, presents real practical problems. We have to balance the work involved in relation to the end achieved. Updated explanatory memoranda are submitted where proposals have been significantly altered; these will continue to be provided, as and when appropriate. We will as far as we can ensure that the Scrutiny Committee has further information about the proposals recommended for debate and about the likely timing of Council consideration.
New procedures have largely met recommendation (30) on the Definition of Treaties Orders. The Procedure Committee also asked that the explanatory memoranda printed at the back of such orders should be more informative. We shall use our best endeavours to see that further factual information can be given without misleading the House as to the purpose of the order. The title of treaties which are the subject of such orders are now included as a matter of course in the title of the draft order.
Finally, on European legislation, I propose to use the opportunity presented by this debate to make slight changes in Standing Orders by changing references to "Commission documents" to "European Community documents" so that they will be brought in line once again with the terms of reference of the Select Committee on European legislation.
The third major proposal put forward this afternoon concerns financial control by the House of Commons. In the long run this could prove the most important sphere of all. The whole power and influence of the House of Commons ultimately rest on two things—the power of the Commons to grant Supply and the power of the Commons to regulate expenditure.
The fundamental principle has been established for centuries. In 1407 the principle first saw the light of day. It was then established that financial matters should be initiated in the House of Commons. We have accepted that all taxes and burdens imposed on the nation for the purpose of the State must be granted 732 by Parliament. That principle fully established itself in 1688. The Bill of Rights reaffirmed it and brought to an end the financial policies that had been followed by the Tudors and the Stuarts. It has also been accepted since 1713 by what was Standing Order No. 89 that any increase in expenditure must be initiated by the Government.
There is no doubt about the importance and clarity of the principle. However, there is grave doubt about the practice. We have our means of controlling financial matters. There are the Budget debate, the Finance Bill, the Consolidated Fund Bill, the Appropriation Bill and the Estimates. These are the great events of the Commons financial year. But it is also true that much of the control in relation to the Estimates is formal rather than real. Supply days existed for the purpose of debating Estimates. They have been appropriated by the Opposition for their own purposes. That is perfectly legitimate, but it means that there is often no detailed scrutiny of Estimates.
The other point to which I draw the House's attention is that we have not benefited from the divorce of the debates on expenditure from the consideration of taxation. It was a happy advance when in this year's Budget the expenditure White Paper and the Budget proposals were brought together.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
O felix culpa.
Widespread dissatisfaction has been expressed in different parts of the House, particularly by my hon. Friends the Members for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) and Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins). The matter was considered to some extent in the Procedure Committee report, but it was not considered in the depth that is required.
I can deal quite briefly with the specific recommendations in the Procedure Committee report about the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General, recommendations (66) to (68), which have been overtaken by the publication earlier this year of the Green Paper about the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Government are awaiting the comments of those who have been 733 consulted, not least those from the Public Accounts Committee.
The Procedure Committee recommended that departmental Estimates, including Supplementary Estimates, should be referred to the departmentally related Select Committees. Action has been taken to provide the Committees with proof copies of the Supplementary Estimates, as recommended in the first special report of the Treasury and Civil Service Committee. I hope that the Committees will make use of this material.
§ Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Green Paper on the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General legitimises the gradual transfer that has been taking place over the years of control over the Comptroller and his Department from this House to the Government, particularly to the Treasury? That fits ill with his protestations about wanting to enhance the power of the House.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I do not believe that that is so. The paper expresses an opinion of the Government. It is in the form of a Green Paper, not a White Paper. It does not contain any decisions of the Government and there is no final view in it.
More important than those recommendations is the fact that the Procedure Committee recognised that the system by which the House controls Supply is in need of radical review. I share that view, as does my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The motion on the Order Paper accordingly provides for the establishment of a Select Committee at the beginning of the next Session to examine the whole of our present procedures for considering and voting on Government requests for Supply. Its effectiveness in the future must be one of the principal concerns of all those who care for the maintenance and strengthening of our parliamentary system.
The range of matters within that review would include—and I give these purely as examples—procedures for the examination of departmental Estimates, Supply day procedures and procedures for the consideration of the Consolidated Fund and Appropriation Bills. The task of the new Committee will be to examine those and other matters within its terms of 734 reference and to consider in what way the role of the House in that critical field can be made a more effective reality.
I shall do all that I can, if the House agrees to the motion, to enable the Committee to be established as soon as possible in the next Session. I am sure, too—and this is a matter for the Committee—that it will complete its work as quickly as is consistent with the importance of the subject.
The power of Parliament is, in theory, unlimited. It is a fundamental doctrine of our constitution that the Queen in Parliament is supreme. It is not a dead doctrine, but it is not applied fully and at all times. Nevertheless, the power is there potentially, ready to be called forth once again at the will of this House at any time. I believe that these reforms and proposals give the House of Commons another opportunity to adapt itself to the needs and signs of the time in an evolutionary but effective way. Hon. Members have an opportunity to restore Parliament to the centre of the political stage. The opportunity has been given by the Government, but how far it is taken depends on the attitude of hon. Members.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)
The Leader of the House referred to the general support in the House for the changes in parliamentary procedure. "General" is the right word, because we should not include everyone. That is why the Shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot), who spoke with such wit last night, is not here and I am. For this purpose today, I am Shadow Leader.
I, too, pay tribute to the development in this Session of the new Select Committees. There have been excellent reports. The report of the Home Affairs Committee on the "sus" laws shows the great value of such Committees. Their role is evolving. However, there is an overlap in the work of many of the Committees that we are setting up and we shall have to consider that.
I endorse what the right hon. Gentleman said about the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. I am not making a political point, but the way that the Committee has obtained from the Chancellor facts and figures of monetary policy, 735 for example, is of the greatest importance. I spent the Summer Recess looking through back papers from the Northern Ireland Office, where I was Secretary of State. It is quite different from the big Departments of State.
§ Mr. Rees
I am not writing memoirs in what has come to be the generally accepted sense of the term. I love my fellow men—and women.
Certain decision-making in a Department is inappropriate to put to a Select Committee. However, very valuable information comes from the work of these Committees. I pay tribute to them.
I deal next with what I consider to be the next development and do not follow the order on the Order Paper. A Select Committee should be set up to examine the procedure for voting on the Government's requests for Supply. The right hon. Gentleman gave a brief and interesting analysis of the developments over the centuries. There is also an interesting article in The House Magazine by Charles Winnifrith. The report in 1977–78 did not discuss procedure, but it is time that we did.
When I was responsible for a large Department I was conscious that I could not have a real idea about the way that the moneys in the Estimates were built up. It is one thing to have any argument, as we do in this House, about the totality of public expenditure, but the detail should be looked at outside the Department concerned. That is an important development which I commend.
As regards the Public Bill procedure, there is an interesting section in the report on the role of parliamentary procedure—adequate explanation, safeguarding the rights of those affected by Bills and so on. We know of the role of Green and White Papers over the years, but I have no doubt that the normal Standing Committee is too often a charade. It betrays a lack of knowledge, which all of us share, and the system is time-consuming. When I was first elected to the House about 20 years ago, the one aim in life of older Members was never to get on a Standing Committee. Some hon., and subsequently 736 right hon., Members made a claim to fame from not having been asked to serve on a Standing Committee.
There is a need for a fact-collecting stage. Time is a problem. Perhaps I should have listened more carefully to the Leader of the House or read the Order Paper more carefully, but I am not clear whether it is intended that the Chairman should be the same right hon. Member or hon. Member who is the Chairman of what I call the normal Standing Committee.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
The suggestion is that the Chairman should be a different Chairman, who would be appointed by Mr. Speaker. The suggestion came from the Panel of Chairmen. It could, for example, be the Chairman of the relevant Select Committee or it could be another person appointed by the Panel.
§ Mr. Rees
It is important that the Chairman should be neutral in both circumstances; and we shall have to return to this point in the debate.
As to the sort of Bills that will be involved, when discussions took place through the usual channels some months ago it seemed that we were talking about non-controversial Bills. When the Home Secretary first mentioned a nationality Bill I suggested on the Floor of the House that it would be an appropriate Bill to put through the fact-finding procedure. It is a complicated matter and I tremble to think what will happen if we do not have a fact-finding exercise on the Bill before it goes to Standing Committee. We could land ourselves in trouble and not do justice to the subject.
The only Committee that I served on in this Session was that on the Broadcasting Bill, chaired by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain). That was not a controversial Bill. Indeed, I do not regard nationality as controversial in the normal sense of the term. Our proceedings on the Broadcasting Bill would have been very much better if we had had a fact-finding exercise, because, with respect to hon. Members who served on the Committee, a great deal of our discussion was a waste of time.
What criteria are the Government putting forward in regard to non-controversial Bills? The Leader of the House suggested that the same Standing Committee 737 will look at undertakings given by Ministers. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) pointed out that that was not a recommendation by the Procedure Committee. I can see difficulties in that respect, because the first bite of the cherry is fact-finding, and the third bite is fact-finding of a different nature.
§ Mr. Spearing
The recommendation of the Select Committee was for a re-run procedure on undertakings given in normal Standing Committees, but the Select Committee did not link that with the present proposals for special Committees.
§ Mr. Rees
I agree with my hon. Friend. We need to hear views on that matter from both sides of the House.
I was not much involved in EEC legislation in the previous Government, but we have learnt of the debates, arguments and changes that took place in relation to that legislation. I read with interest in the report that at some stage the appropriate Select Committee might look at the merits of European legislation. That is why I said earlier that there is an overlapping in some developments and we shall have to be careful that that does not go too far. There must be clarity of responsibility.
I shall listen carefully to my hon. Friends who have tabled amendments on this matter. We shall have a free vote and my hon. Friends are making appropriate and relevant points. I do not propose to go further than that at this stage.
The declaratory resolution puts the existing practice of the House in the form of a resolution and I support that. There is an amendment down to that and, because of the difficulties of procedure, I propose to leave the matter to the hon. Members who support that amendment rather than to rehearse all the arguments now.
Certainly, as regards the responsibilities of the House, this is not the end of the matter. We are dealing with procedural matters and not the basic argument about the role of the Community and the way that it has influenced the House, but there is no doubt that we shall return to that subject in greater depth in future months and years.
The statutory instruments section of the Procedure Committee report has been left out and I listened carefully to the Leader of the House's explanation of 738 that. We all know that strong feelings have been expressed on both sides of the House by those who have had responsibility for business management in successive Governments.
The Leader of the House said that he had had enough trouble and would not reveal all until he wrote his memoirs. He knows those on the Opposition side who have doubts about the Procedure Committee's recommendations and we know who have doubts on the Government side. We ought to consider those arguments. If we are to get the development we seek, we shall have to convince right hon. and hon. Members—and most of those concerned are right hon. Members—that the House is not building in a system that will clog up the business and make it difficult for Governments, Chief Whips and future Leaders of the House to get their business through. The fear is that we are suggesting a clogging mechanism, whatever else our aims may be. It is important to indicate, though perhaps I am not doing it as delicately as I should, that there are strong forces on both sides of the House who believe that the Procedure Committee's recommendation is a device for making sure that Governments will not get their business through with alacrity.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I take the opportunity to put the matter beyond doubt and to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for the part that he has played in getting the propoasls before the House. Throughout, he has been constructive, progressive and all those nice-sounding words that we like to have applied to ourselves. I am most grateful to him.
§ Mr. Rees
I did not have to take a decision and I am jolly glad about that. I would probably have been as unsuccessful as the right hon. Gentleman was. I am grateful for what he has said. We must answer the criticism that the recommendation of the Procedure Committee would lead to problems for a Government in getting their business through. We move slowly in procedure matters, and the Leader of the House deserves praise for the changes that he has made in this Session.
This evening there is a free vote. In general, on behalf of the Opposition Front Bench, I commend the proposals that the right hon. Gentleman makes to 739 the House. We should listen most carefully to the arguments relating to the amendments on the Order Paper. I have learnt from dipping my toe into the waters of parliamentary procedure in the course of the last Session that there is a fund of knowledge among a relatively small number of right hon. and hon. Members who are present for this debate. I shall listen carefully to the arguments that they put before deciding how to vote.
§ Mr. Paul Dean (Somerset, North)
I agree with the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) that this is one of the most important debates in the House of Commons this Session and it will remain important for some time to come. I also join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. This Session is already noteworthy for the introduction of the new Select Committees, which, in a comparatively short time, have made a major mark not only on our parliamentary procedures in the House but on the more effective disciplines that Parliament is now exerting on the Government of the day, restoring the authority of this House.
All too often in the past, parties in Opposition have been enthusiastic for parliamentary reform, but the minute that they come into Government that enthusiasm evaporates. They can find a whole series of arguments for not bringing reforms before the House. The present Leader of the House has been an exception. The fact that we are now debating a second major series of reforms in one Session shows that my right hon. Friend intends to make his mark as Leader in helping to restore the authority of this place.
I wish to confine my remarks largely to the suggestion relating to the Special Standing Committees. I am sure that the whole House would wish to express its gratitude to those hon. Members who served on the Select Committee and who produced this suggestion. It has been my good fortune in 16 years in this House to serve in almost every conceivable capacity on Standing Committees. I share the reaction of the right hon. Member for Leeds, South. If one serves as a Back Bencher in Opposition on a Stand- 740 ing Committee, one is encouraged to speak. Often if one serves as a Government Back Bencher one is encouraged to do something else and not to speak, so that the Government of the day can get their business. I have also served on the Opposition Front Bench in Standing Committees and as a Minister piloting Bills through Standing Committees. More recently, in this Parliament, I have presided over Standing Committees as a member of the Chairman's Panel.
This varied experience has left with me three strong impressions about Standing Committees as they now exist. First, they are losing their value as an effective means of probing the details of legislation, line by line and clause by clause. Secondly, what is called the adversarial character of Standing Committees does not lend itself to dealing properly with the complexity of modern Bills. Thirdly, the procedure is too late. By the time a Bill gets into Standing Committee it is in a rigid mould. The Government are too committed to it. I have therefore reached the conclusion that the time is right to change in the directions now proposed.
It is understandable why these developments have happened and why the traditional Standing Committee procedure should have been overtaken by events and the complexities of modern life. It is understandable that Governments of all political colours have found it appropriate, indeed necessary, to consult outside interests at an early stage before they draft the details of their legislation. We have reached the stage when draft Bills are actually circulated round the outside interests. This seems a sensible precaution for the Government to adopt, but the fact is that the House of Commons is not consulted at these early stages. There is no formal procedure for that to happen.
A wise Minister will consult his interested Back Benchers by discussions in the corridor. He might even consult his opposite numbers. But the reality is that the position now exists where the only people who are empowered by our constitution to enact legislation are the last people to be consulted. We are presented, in due course, with a Bill that has taken months or, in some cases, years to prepare. We have had no say in the 741 preparation of that Bill. Ministers, Civil servants and outside interests are consulted but not Parliament. This seems to explain why Standing Committees have become increasingly a ritual and less and less a process of effective scrutiny.
Hon. Members, particularly those who have had ministerial experience, know that Ministers can always use their last card which can be their trump card. If they have been out-argued on an amendment during discussion of a Bill in Committee and recognise that the arguments in favour of the amendment are overwhelming, they appeal to their hon. Friends sitting behind them by saying that the balance of the Bill has been so carefully drawn up and the Government have compromised here and there with interests outside that the whole balance of the Bill would be destroyed if the Government were to concede the powerful arguments that have been deployed. That is the last card that a Minister who has lost every argument can use. Often, he uses it to good effect. That is another reason why our procedures need bringing up to date.
I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House say that he was in favour of a pre-legislation process. So am I. I hope that if we pass the proposals for a Special Standing Committee today this will be a step in that direction. Equally, I recognise that the Select Committee on Procedure in its report doubted whether this pre-legislation procedure would be suitable at this stage for legislation other than legislation that is non-controversial and non-urgent. However, the Select Committee also went on to indicate two developments of great significance. First, the Committee recognised the growing practice of Governments to proceed through consultation by White or Green Papers. This development has grown naturally over recent years. The Committee also pointed to some striking examples of pre-legislation Select Committees that have had a substantial influence on the eventual legislation or on whether that legislation should be brought forward.
The Select Committee on Tax-Credits sat in the 1972–73 Session. There is no doubt that the proposals which eventually emerged from that Select Committee were a substantial improvement on the proposals originally made by the Gov- 742 ernment of the day. When considering the timetable of events perhaps it is significant that because the proposals were put to that Select Committee there was not time to legislate on them in that Parliament. However, that is by the way.
Another pre-legislation Select Committee of considerable importance was that on the proposed wealth tax. That Committee sat in the 1974–75 Session. Probably as a result of that Select Committee's deliberations the proposal was stillborn. Whether it was a wise decision, it was a classic example of a highly complex matter being the subject of consultation in the House of Commons before proceeding with legislation.
We are evolving methods of making Parliament more closely associated with the early stages of the legislative process. That is encouraging and essential if Parliament is to win the struggle to gain better control over the Government of the day. After all, legislation these days almost invariably leads to expenditure which might range five or 10 years ahead. Unless Parliament has some say in the formulation of that legislation it will have ineffective control over the expenditure which flows from it. It is like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
There is another reason why the proposals are significant. They can associate the Opposition of the day much more closely with the formulation of policy. 1 nurture the hope that if the Opposition have an opportunity to have their say before legislation is formulated they are less likely to want to show their virility by saying that they will repeal the legislation when they return to power. We have suffered from that phenomenon many times since the war. Classic examples are housing and pensions. Whatever one might feel about the policies of any particular Government, if policies are to be changed when long-term planning is involved, insecurity, indecision and difficulties will be caused for people outside Parliament. Thus, another advantage of a pre-legislation procedure is that by enabling the Opposition to have some say over the form of legislation we might prevent some of the see-sawing policies which in some areas have created insecurity and difficulty.
743 I should like us to go to pre-legislation committees straight away—to re-establish the First Reading in a modern guise. I recognise that in this conservative place it would be unwise to attempt to go too far or too fast. I welcome the Special Standing Committee as a step in the right direction. It is in accordance with our well-tried procedures in Parliament and the process of sending for persons, papers and records. Hearing oral evidence is something with which we are familiar as parliamentarians. There is nothing revolutionary about the proposed change. It is a natural evolutionary process. I hope that we shall agree to try it and see how we get on. It could be as important a step in the evolution of parliamentary practice as the new Select Committees.
I was glad to hear what my right hon. Friend said about the role of the Chairman of the Committees. It is of cardinal importance that the role of the Chairman should not impugn the well-known impartiality which the members of the Chairmen's Panel try to exercise in the conduct of proceedings.
To summarise, I believe that in the proposals for the Special Standing Committees and the other reforms, which I shall not mention in detail, we are not aiming to usurp the role of Government, because Governments must decide and put their proposals to Parliament. We must scrutinise, probe and make Governments prove their case. That is the essence of parliamentary government. Today, and this Session, might prove, not for the first time, that this Mother of Parliaments is old but yet young; that this ancient and honourable House is secure in the wisdom that has been built up over the centuries by tradition, custom and precedent. We are also showing that we are responsive to new needs, to new fears and to the aspirations of the people whom we represent. We have an opportunity today to fashion new ways of ensuring that Parliament and people remain in communion with each other.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
My remarks and the amendments which I and some of my hon. Friends have tabled relate entirely to the control of 744 EEC legislation. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster uttered some worthy sentences about parliamentary control over legislation and some even finer words about the Queen in Parliament being absolutely sovereign. The object of our amendments, is to strengthen parliamentary control over EEC legislation as it goes through the House.
The immediate issue with which we are concerned is whether we can clearly establish by a declaratory motion that, when the Scrutiny Committee has recommended a legislative instrument from the Community for debate in the House, a Minister will not take a final legislative decision in the Council of Ministers before that instrument has been debated in the House.
If that assurance is not firm, the House has no control over EEC legislation. When the time comes to debate it, the Minister will say that, regrettably, the final decision was taken a fortnight previously in the Council of Ministers and that the regulation or directive is already law and binding in the Birtish courts. It is salutary that we should all remember that this is entirely an issue of EEC legislation—not of negotiation, discussion or consultation in the Council of Ministers—which becomes binding in the courts of Britain equally with legislation passed by the House.
Briefly, the history of the controversy is that as the European Communities Act 1972 passed through the House we received repeated assurances that a procedure would be established to enable the House to examine EEC legislation in a satisfactory manner. There followed the Foster committee, which recommended the setting up of the Scrutiny Committee, and, after the passing of the European Communities Act, that Committee was established. However, there was no guarantee that Ministers would not assent to EEC legislation before the debate took place in the House.
On 11 June 1974, in a general debate on procedure, I addressed a question to the then Minister of State at the Foreign Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), about whether he could give an undertaking that no Minister would give his approval to legislation before a debate had taken place in the House. He agreed that any other procedure 745 would be intolerable. Some of us took that to mean that in matters of legislation, and where a recommendation had been given by the Scrutiny Committee, no Minister would act in that way. It is a comment on the way that we sometimes conduct our affairs that it is now more than six years since that undertaking was given. and we still do not have it fully embodied in a motion.
§ Mr. English
I understand my right hon. Friend's point. Is he not aware that no person can give such an assurance, because it would be illegal under the Treaty of Rome? Under Community law legislation can be passed by the Council of Ministers, and no one Minister who might be outvoted can give an assurance that it will not become law unless he wishes that. That cannot be done.
§ Mr. Jay
I am not clear what point my hon. Friend is trying to make. Unless the Minister gives his assent to the legislation at the Council of Ministers, it will not become EEC legislation. That is the issue at stake. Following that debate and the original assurance, Governments began gradually to water down the assurance and to introduce a qualification that it would be carried out unless, in an emergency, a Minister chose to do otherwise. He would then attempt to inform Parliament thereafter.
In the opinion of myself and some of my hon. Friends, that is not satisfactory. Far from carrying out the undertaking to give further parliamentary control over the Executive, if we assented to place in the hands of a Minister the power to decide that he would not bring legislation before the House at all because he found himself in what he might describe as an emergency, that he was in a hurry and that it would be a great deal of trouble to do so, that would be the greatest surrender of legislative power that Parliament has ever made.
The purpose of our amendments is to ensure that the House does not hand over an unqualified power to Ministers to act on a dispensation from the undertaking given. There are four amendments. Amendment (a) would remove the qualification in the motion tabled by the Leader of the House and would mean that there was a clear undertaking that no assent would be given until a debate had taken place in the House.
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He said that no agreement should be given. The motion proposes that no Minister should give agreement. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that, if the motion is passed or amended in any way, it will be binding on the Leader of the House and the Government?
§ Mr. Jay
That is an interesting point. Perhaps the Leader of the House will make that point clear when he replies. I hope that we can take it that the words "should not be given" mean that no Minister would disregard the undertaking. Leaving that point aside, that would be the effect of amendment (a).
Amendment (b) relates to an important though less crucial point. It ensures that the matter, when it came before the House, would be on a substantive motion and not on the Adjournment and therefore would be capable of amendment. In effect, it ensures that it would be open to the House to say to the Minister "Go back to Brussels, amend the legislation in this fashion, and then it will have the approval of the House."
Amendment (c) would leave the Scrutiny Committee with authority to make its recommendations to the House but it would remove altogether the power of the Minister to give his assent in Brussels before the debate took place.
Amendment (d), which is an indispensable amendment to which no one could have any objection, would ensure that if the previous amendments were not accepted, and if the Minister were still allowed some discretion, he would be bound to make an oral statement in the House explaining what he had done and his reasons for it. That amendment is not sufficient; it is the minimum that is required. I regret to say that, as the Leader of the House probably knows, in recent months in several cases a Minister has carried out that undertaking only in an answer to a written question after the event which was probably not noticed by a great number of hon. Members.
I recommend the amendments to the House. They are intended simply to give us some control over EEC legislation. When we are saying that Standing Committees are not good enough and that we must have a pre-legislative Committee in 747 addition to Second Reading, Committee stage, Report stage and Third Reading, it would be ironic if, in the case of EEC legislation—which is equally binding in the courts—we should have not only no Second Reading, no Report stage, no Third Reading and no Royal Assent but no discussion in the House at all. I hope that the House will agree that these amendments are the minimum that is required to deal with EEC legislation.
§ Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)
Not infrequently in previous debates on procedure steps have been advocated to ensure that hon. Members keep their speeches short, and I certainly intend to do that. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) will forgive me if I do not pursue his points about the Common Market and so on.
I should like to speak exclusively on the motion entitled "Procedure (Supply)" which statesThat a Select Committee should be appointed at the beginning of the next Session of Parliament to examine the House's present procedure for considering and voting on the Government's requests for Supply, and to make recommendations.I must tell my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that I warmly welcome that motion. Perhaps I might also express by thanks and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), who heard the opening remarks of the Leader of the House but is unable to be here now, for the kind remarks by the Leader of the House about the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service, which has got away to a good start.
If there is one thing that is less modest and more unpopular in this House than quoting one's speeches, it is quoting from one's articles. None the less, I am emboldened to refer to one which I wrote in the National Westminster Review in August 1978—if I am allowed to make a commercial. I found, to my surprise, that even in "Erskine May" there is no real account of our financial procedures. There is certainly no clear description of when particular matters may be debated or voted upon, or of the parliamentary timetable.
748 I therefore thought it right, with the assistance of the Clerks, who have no responsibility for what I wrote but were kind enough to check it, to spell out what the procedures are. I think that that is helpful. In the article I explained, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has, that while we are told that the whole historic foundation of the power of the House rests on the control of Supply, developments over the years have created a situation where Supply is almost the last thing we debate in any detail. There are 29 Supply days, but they have fallen into the hands of the Opposition Front Bench. Although it is technically possible on occasion on a Supply day for a Back Bencher to debate a particular item of Supply, it is a fairly brave Member who will do so at the beginning of an important debate on a broad and important subject. As a result of that, it has become virtually impossible to secure any detailed debate on these matters.
Very often our historic precedents lead us to create a good framework within which to operate. However, the question of Supply has, over the years, run into a blind alley, and therefore I welcome very much my right hon. Friend's suggestion that a Committee should examine it to see how we get it back on the rails.
A recent innovation has been the integration of cash limits with Estimates. However, in that context we still do not have an opportunity to debate cash limits in any detail. Given the complexity of modern government, there is an overwhelming case for the Estimates that are put before the House, however carefully Treasury Ministers may have sought to scrutinise them, to be surveyed also by the Committees of this House and, if necessary, debated and voted upon in detail on the Floor of the House. That simply is not possible at present. There may well be specific items which hon. Members, perhaps across party lines, feel they should have an opportunity to debate and vote upon.
It is sometimes said that we should consider in that context what happens with the public expenditure White Paper. We thought that there would be great debates upon it, but in some years the debates have turned out to be unbelievably dull. To a large extent they are frequently badly attended because hon. 749 Members know that they cannot vote on this or that item or on the totality of the expenditure which is proposed at various stages in our procedure. I am sure that these debates would attract better attendances if that were not so, although obviously it would be helpful if the Committees responsible for particular Departments had scrutinised Estimates or cash limits and made recommendations on them in advance.
Other points need to be considered by the Committee that I hope will be set up. Expenditure approved in one year cannot be transferred into a subsequent year, but in this respect there has been a dangerous development lately to which the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service has drawn attention. It is that the Government may, in the course of pay negotiations, make firm commitments for a subsequent year which are not covered by the cash limits for the current year. As a result of that, the procedure is effectively being circumvented. As a Parliament we do not have true control over that. We therefore need to be able to bring the annual system of Estimates and cash limits back under parliamentary control.
That means that we need to look at the Estimates and cash limits in detail. They do not have the force of law. They are eventually embodied in legislation, generally in the form of the Consolidated Fund Bill. We have reached a very odd situation with that Bill. On the Second Reading hon. Members can debate anything, but they cannot vote on any of it. In the later stages they can vote on the whole lot, but they cannot debate it. That surely cannot be sensible.
In all these respects, therefore, there are real opportunities here for discussing these matters and putting them right. It is not satisfactory when hon. Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) have to exercise great ingenuity in order to get a debate on matters involving expenditure of thousands of millions of pounds which would otherwise be approved on the nod. That is the wrong way to set about it because it invariably causes a great deal of controversy. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) pressed a number of Divisions a few months ago to register our protest about what has become a severe 750 restraint on parlimentary control of the Executive.
I hope very much that it will be possible for the Committee to report rapidly, because these matters are well known to many hon. Members. I hope that we shall he able to carry out a reform in time for the next Consolidated Fund Bill, although that depends on how one works it. However, whether any of these proposals mean anything depends on whether the Government of the day are prepared to give time for these matters to be debated. Clearly, it would be unsatisfactory for the Opposition of whichever party if the number of Supply Days were severely curtailed. It may be necessary to make some adjustments at the margin. None the less, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will take on board the fact that these reforms are meaningful only if the Government are prepared to give up time to ensure that Parliament reasserts its traditional role in these areas, which are of vital importance.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has already introduced some extremely important reforms. I believe that if he carries through this one as well, dealing with that which is at the heart of our parliamentary affairs—namely, finance—he could well turn out to be the most effective reforming Leader of the House we have seen, certainly this century.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)
There was a retrospective section in the speech of the Leader of the House in which he referred to the working so far of what are called the new Select Committees. I should like to associate myself with the hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) in uttering a word of anxiety, although I personally, on the Select Committee on Procedure and in the House, wholeheartedly supported the principle of the establishment of these Committees, regarding them as a logical and necessary extension of the development of the Estimates and Expenditure Committees of the past.
My anxiety arises not out of the Standing Order which created the Committees but out of a quite separate decision of the House, namely, that the public might be admitted—which means in practice that 751 they almost invariably are admitted—to the sittings of the Select Committees. The admission of the public has carried with it the convention that the Committees are deemed to have reported their evidence day by day.
The effect of that has been to turn some of the work of these Select Committees into instantaneous comment and debate on, if not investigation into, the matters of the day, which often anticipates and in some way replaces the function of the House in calling Ministers rapidly to account where speed is necessary. It has also altered the peculiar character that was always associated with Select Committees—that of asking a question or a series of questions and pursuing them by the interrogation of witnesses until satisfied that a point of clarification had been reached which justified them in sending their report to this House.
In modern cinemas, apart from the main show, there can be subsidiary cinemas in which subsidiary films run at the same time. Something similar seems to have resulted from the creation of the new Select Committees; but we should be jealous of our Select Committees losing their peculiar character, not merely of impartiality, but of exclusive attention to extracting information beyond what the House is capable of doing.
I turn to the motion that is technically before the House. With respect, it is not quite correct that we are completing our work and have dealt with all the recommendations of the Select Committee. I have drawn to the attention of the Leader of the House one such recommendation, recommendation (10), to which it was specifically promised on an earlier occasion that attention would be given. That has not happened. In that recommendation the Select Committee recommended that the proposals of the Committee on the preparation of Legislation—the Renton committee—for an ex-expedited procedure for Bills to re-enact for Scotland the provisions of United Kingdom Acts should be implemented and that a similar procedure should be applied in respect of Northern Ireland.
I shall not trouble the House by rehearsing the argument in paragraph 2.40 of the Committee's report; but undoub- 752 tedly this is a recommendation that would save the time of the House without in any way opening the door to unscrutinised legislation going on the statute book. It would simply enable the consolidation conventions and procedures to be applied to Bills duly certified as applying, subject to the law of Scotland or Northern Ireland, legislation that had passed through Parliament in the normal manner already. The House has indicated—I think with justice—that it is impatient of the additional burden placed upon its time by the necessity of re-enacting for parts of the Kingdom other than England the same legislation, simply with application clauses or with account taken of local legal differences. I hope that when the Leader of the House replies he will not merely refer to this but will indicate sympathy with something that would substantially alleviate the burden on the time of the House.
I make this observation in no way with prejudice to any questions regarding the future constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland. I simply say that as long as this House legislates for Northern Ireland and Scotland we should do so with expedition in the manner recommended by the Select Committee.
I turn now to some of the proposals on the Order Paper. I was disappointed that the Leader of the House, although he welcomed the amendment relating to Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, did not adopt it or offer to consider it on behalf of the Government or propose an alternative. It is a standing scandal which has existed for some 30 years that Parliament passes legislation providing for Parliament to control subordinate legislation, and then by its own procedures the House prevents itself from doing so. I appreciate the point made by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), that there is a question here whether such procedures might not be used merely for the purpose of obstruction of Government business—though in some circumstances there is something to be said for the obstruction of Government business. The beginning of the 30 years' scandal was in the 1950 Parliament, where there was a very narrow majority, when the use of what we colloquially call prayers was deliberately resorted to in order to harass and tire the Government of the day—a process not normally to 753 be achieved. As a result of that experience, by a series of changes in procedure, the House denied itself the opportunity which should be open to it of exercising control over subordinate legislation, particularly negative control by way of prayer.
§ Sir Graham Page (Crosby)
The right hon. Gentleman probably recollects that when the 11.30 pm rule was introduced the Leader of the House gave an undertaking that time would always be found for prayers.
§ Mr. Powell
Yes. I also remember that Lord Boyle of Handsworth and I were reluctant, even at that stage, to agree to this retrenchment of what should, by reason of our statutory declarations, be a process automatically available.
The stage we have reached at the moment is that some of these motions for annulment are sent to Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, but the procedure in those Committees is a farce. The Standing Order prevents the Committees from doing what the House would do if it was dealing with a statutory instrument on the Floor: it would come to a decision on the prayer—for or against. There is something odious about a Standing Order which forbids any manifestation of this House to reach a decision.
The reason for it is not that prayers might otherwise become a means of obstructing Government business. A Standing Order that prevents a decision "Yes" or "No" or the consideration of an amendment, does not increase the number of sittings; it does not afford an opportunity for harassing the Government. On the other hand, it does require the Government to ensure that, if necessary, they have a Government majority on that Committee.
That is a different matter. The House may consider that it would be improper to institute a procedure which self-evidently could be used for the frustration of business. It is a different matter to refuse to remedy a deficiency to spare the Government having to secure a majority on a Committee in the morning. That is only a Whips' reason, if I may so put it—I have the assent of the Leader of the House who is not a Whip, nor likely to be nor, I think, has been. We both escaped that. Consequently, I read into 754 his assent more than the usual warmth: he recognises that the Whips' argument has limited validity, if any.
The proposals on the Order Paper, which derives from the deliberation of the Committee, are a careful attempt to meet the problem of enabling, within limits of time, a Statutory Instruments Committee to do its work properly by coming to a conclusion for or against the proposition that the instrument should be annulled, and to have a debate which should conclude, as is proper for debates, with a decision.
I believe that the right hon. Gentleman—and certainly the House—has not heard the last of this; for it is not tolerable that year after year we deny to the public the means of controlling through us the exercise of delegated legislation by Ministers. To that extent I am disappointed with what we have before us.
I now come to the special Standing Committees. Here I believe that we are using the device of an experiment to save ourselves the trouble of deciding whether or not a proposal is inherently practical. It is a method to which we sometimes resort when faced with something which, if throughly examined, would be found to be contradictory, to say "Let us have an experiment, let us try it". That method has been adopted in more serious contexts than that of the constitution and procedure of Standing Committees of this House.—[Interruption.] I have in mind the Northern Ireland constitution.
There is an inherent contradiction and difficulty about this proposition. A Standing Committee on a Bill is this House in miniature; and a Standing Committee on a Bill ought to be able to behave, and be allowed to behave, as this House would behave when considering a Bill in Committee. That is how these Standing Committees came into existence, in order that, like an excursion train, the House could run in duplicate, in triplicate, and sometimes higher multiples.
I do not agree with those who say that the line-by-line method of consideration is ineffective. It is one of the most effective methods of examining legislation to force a Minister to debate a specific amendment on a specific line. I do not think that is diminished by the fact that in Standing Committee, for 755 reasons which are well understood, one half of the Committee tends to be mute and the other to be vocal. The mute part of the Committee is not necessarily ineffective because it is mute. For one thing, it hears the arguments. [Interruption.] I am being generous. I am not one of those hon. Members who have a clean record of no-service on Standing Committees over the last 30 years, and I know that Members on the Government side who take an interest in the Bill do listen to the arguments which are being put against its provisions, and if there is a Division they do have to decide whether or not to intimate—indeed, to intimate earlier, if possible—to the Whip that they do not think the Minister is on a good case. Everyone knows that is what happens in practice. So it simply is not true that the Standing Committee procedure is ineffective for the scrutiny of a Bill.
That scrutiny, like the scrutiny on the Floor of the House, is what is called adversarial; and where the provisions of the Bill are politically charged, there will be political debate in the Committee and decisions will be taken on political and on party lines. Let the House not suppose that by having three sittings, or how many it might be, of the Committee as if it were a Select Committee, that will transform the consideration of the Bill into that kind of consideration which a Select Committee ought to undertake with the assistance of witnesses. It will remain controversial, and the interrogation of witnesses—which will take place in public, because the proceedings of Standing Committes, being proceedings of the House, ought to be in public—the selection of witnesses and the jockeying for position in putting questions to witnesses, will be purely political and politically motivated. It will not bear other than the resemblance of a caricature to what happens in the working of a true Select Committee, nor will that be altered by giving it a different Chairman, so that he can do what the Chairman of a Select Committee does, which is, in effect, to conduct the interrogation of the witnesses.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
I was listening very carefully and I had some difficulty in understanding why the right hon. Gentleman contends that the presentation of 756 oral evidence before the Special Standing Committee will not enable the members of that Standing Committee to form a better view of the merits of the Minister's case.
§ Mr. Powell
A Committee on a Bill where the matters are in controversy will be endeavouring to prove its case on one side or the other and to elicit only those facts which it considers to be germane to its own case. That is an entirely different approach to the examination of witnesses from that which we expect from a Select Committee.
I will take a point which was made by the Leader of the House. He said that he expected that the Minister in charge of a Bill would not merely be a Member of the Committee but that he would step down, go round to the other side of the reporters and turn into a witness. The notion that a Committee on a Bill, with the Minister in the seat in front of it, will get any more change than it will out of the adversarial procedure is, in my view, a delusion. I think it will make a mockery of Select Committee procedure and of the examination of witnesses by Select Committees.
I am not sure that the Leader of the House is not half aware of this, because he is to choose for this experiment three Bills "not of acute political controversy". Yet it is where the political controversy is acute that people have expressed, inside and outside this House, the desire that there might be some opportunity of bringing outside evidence to bear upon the shaping of a Bill. I simply think that in this we are on a loser, that it has not been thought through or debated sufficiently, and that it is a mistake, that being so, to experiment with it.
With that experiment we are combining, quite illogically—or proposing to do so, under motion No. 3—a very different experiment, of an entirely different character, and one applicable, if applicable at all, to all Bills which go through Standing Committee. It is an experiment which I think we could dispense with and go straight to a Standing Order; for all hon. Members, I should have thought, regret the loss of time in the Report stage which is taken up by the Minister bobbing up and moving an amendment and 757 hon. Members bobbing up and rehearsing what they said in Committee, and thanking the Minister for having done what they knew perfectly well from Committee that he was going to do. This is a tedious waste of time on the floor of the House.
If it can be dealt with by straight undertakings, which are not open to further debate, being implemented before the Bill reaches the House, the House will then be in a better position to consider the Bill on Report. For hon. Members who have not been on the Standing Committee often find themselves faced with an Order Paper as long as your arm, where only careful detailed work on the proceedings of the Committee will enable them to sort out which amendments are the fulfilment of commitments and which represent genuinely new or unsettled points that ought to be properly debated on Report.
I hope we shall find some way of dividing this Standing Order into two Standing Orders, one of an experimental character and another not, dealing, as they do, with entirely separate matters.
The right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) has already addressed the House on the subject of European Community Legislation. We are here trying to do by Standing Order that which it is impossible to do by Standing Order. We are attempting to pretend there is no conflict between control over the law by this House and this country's membership of the EEC. There is an inherent contradiction: if there were not, we would not have had to pass the European Communities Act 1972 in the form in which it stands.
The Divisions that we shall no doubt have on amendments (b), (c) and (d) are no more than manifestations of the incompatibility. It is contrary to the very nature of the Council of Ministers for this House to be able to say "Yea" or "Nay" to the final form of everything that passes through the EEC and becomes the law in this country. We are simply attempting to put off a decision that will be taken sooner or later. Our parliamentary self-government and independence are incompatible with membership of the EEC.
758 I agree with other hon. Members that it is desirable to have a Procedure Committee on Supply and that it is desirable to examine that subject from top to bottom. I am not sure whether the Committee's work will be easy. It will have to combine a notion of scrutiny of one kind with protection of those opportunities for debate and criticism of government, afforded by Supply procedure, which have developed over the centuries. Nevertheless, one wishes the Committee well in its attempt to do so. Even if it does not find the solution to that dilemma, it will dig up some interesting and, perhaps, important recommendations. I ask the Leader of the House, however, not to allow the setting up of a Select Committee on Supply procedure to stand in the way of our having a Sessional Committee on procedure once again. We should have a Sessional Committee on procedure in the next Session. Subjects already exist that should be considered by such a Committee, and no Committee with a large remit such as we are assuming for a Committee on Supply procedure could address itself to those subjects. The Leader of the House would do well if, at the beginning of the next Session, he were to propose the establishment of a Sessional Committee as well as a Committee to examine the procedure of Supply.
§ Mr. Kenneth Baker (St. Marylebone)
There are few hon. Members who have such a deep knowledge of and reverence for the procedures of the House as the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). Those of us who served on the Procedure Committee for nearly three years during the last Parliament found his advice and contribution immensely enriching to our discussions. His foot seemed to stray closer to the brake than to the accelerator, but that is no bad thing when discussing the procedures of the House. We should not be to quick or too anxious to change our procedures all the time. In the absence of a written constitution, our procedures preserve not only the liberties of this House but those of individual citizens. Our procedures buttress and support them in subtle and complex ways, which may not be fully understood until they are tested in this Chamber or in Committee.
759 It is the nature of institutions to change, just as it is the nature of human beings to change. The skill of changing our institutions lies in the continuum of interest from the past to the present and into the future. In that continuum of interest, that which is being changed must not lose its identity. That is the spirit that should dominate our attitude to procedural matters.
I tried to persuade the Procedure Committee to adopt one recommendation, namely, that when a Select Committee on procedure reports, the report should be tabled as a complete report, in the form of recommendations. I do not suggest that for all Select Committees; but a Select Committee on procedure, which examines procedures carefully, should table all its recommendations. If the Government did not want to approve the report, they could table amendments or a negative motion. If we had adopted that procedure we would have debated several subjects, including the proposals made about Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments. Our recommendations are not tabled in the way that I have suggested, and that means that we can debate them only on an amendment, as we have done today.
I share the view held by the right hon. Member for Down, South about our proposals for Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments. I voted for those proposals two years ago and I shall vote for them again tonight. They are sensible and right. We are allowing the scrutiny and control of delegated legislation to slip out of our control. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), because he understands the very complex subject of statutory instruments. I can remember the details of our proposals for only about an hour after I have read them, but I know that they remain fertile in the hon. Gentleman's mind. I strongly support the recommendations as regards amendment (a).
Among the other things that we have not been allowed to debate are some interesting and engaging recommendations at the end of our report. We suggested that we should try to curtail the long sittings of the House. It is a contro- 760 versial subject and the vote was not unanimous. Different views were held.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
It is not accurate to say that the House has been prevented from discussing such matters. The fact that the Government have not tabled a motion on a particular subject does not mean that any hon. Member is prevented from tabling one. A number of other amendments could have been tabled along the lines of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) and anything could have been discussed. However, other motions were not tabled.
§ Mr. Baker
I accept that that is the position, but if all the motions had been tabled by the Select Committee there would have been an onus on the Government to marshal arguments and votes against them. That would have placed the burden of proof on the other foot.
Among the subjects that have not been included are the proposals relating to the 10 o'clock rule. We have a rule that the House should stop at 10 o'clock every night. As hon. Members know, that rule is suspended nearly every night. The Select Committee thought of a way of making the rule stick to some extent. It was proposed that the Question should not be decided in the affirmative unless no fewer than 200 hon. Members vote in the majority in support of the motion. That proposal did not receive the unanimous support of the Committee. There was another suggestion that there should be a 12 o'clock rule after the 10 o'clock rule, and that the numbers should be increased to 400. The House sits late at night and many hon. Members are puzzled and resentful. I appreciate that there is a strong case for holding debates after that hour, and interesting debates often take place at such times. However, the subject could be debated.
We also suggested that there should be more information about the dates of the Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun Recesses. We made a helpful, if minor, suggestion to the effect that the Easter Recess should be longer than the Whitsun Recess, because school holidays are longer at Easter. However, I shall not press those points as they are relatively trivial.
I do not agree with the right hon. Member for Down, South on the subject 761 of specialist Committees. It is an experiment that is worth trying.
Several arguments led me to support the concept of a Standing Committee taking evidence for up to four sittings. First, many outside interests feel that they are excluded from this process of legislation. They make representations to Departments and Ministers and go to see them. Some of them are seen; others are not. However, other outside interests also feel that they would like to get their voice in edgeways in some public way so that they can present their evidence. On certain complicated financial and insurance legislation, for example, I can think of several Bills during the last 10 years which would have been improved if that opportunity had existed.
I am not in favour of a pre-legislative stage—adding another process to our legislation. However, this seemed to be some way of meeting the arguments of those who are in favour of a pre-legislative stage.
Secondly, it is valuable to have those sittings before, as it were, the cement sets and is fixed and firm about a Bill. Often when a Bill goes into Committee, Ministers are briefed to "Resist these amendments on all counts, as we want to get the legislation through." But sometimes they are moved away from the brief during the debate line by line. I do not say that the examination line by line is a solemn farce. We have seen balances of view change in Committee. I could point to examples where there have been changes by Ministers as a result of debates—changes not related to the voting strength in Committee or on Report. Therefore, I should not like to have all Bills go through a Select Committee procedure. Some Members want that. I think the value of debate on a Bill is one of the special qualities of the House. I have not been impressed by what I have seen of the examination of Bills in other legislatures—principally the old Commonwealth legislatures—which have gone almost to a Select Committee examination of Bills. On the other hand, I am glad that the Government have said that they will try to select three Bills of a more technical and not particularly controversial nature for this experiment.
The right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) said that he thought 762 this would clog the legislative process. It would add probably up to four sittings for a Bill. But I should have thought that, on balance, the advantages that I have tried to set out would outweigh the disadvantages. If all legislation were treated in that way, it would slow down the process. Of course, there are those who would say that was a good thing. Some of the original members of the Select Committee four years ago, before they left for other jobs, avowedly said that their whole purpose was to try to clog up the machine. I have never said that. That is not my purpose. It would be an absurd purpose, because at the end of the day the Government have to get their legislative programme, but not before proper scrutiny and examination by the House.
§ Sir Graham Page
My hon. Friend talked about proper scrutiny. If the examination of witnesses were along the same lines as the procedure in a Standing Committee—that is, one side keeping mute and the other side talking—would that discover the facts from witnesses?
§ Mr. Baker
The proof of the pudding to some extent would be in the eating. I should have thought that in an examination of witnesses we would not get what we get in the early stages of debates in Standing Committee—namely, very long, virtually Second Reading speeches. I should hope that under this procedure hon. Members would ask a series of questions in rotation and work out amongst themselves a balance of questioning. That happens in the new Select Committees upstairs. When a Committee has a prime witness before it—for example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Employment, or the Governor of the Bank of England—there is a little jockeying, as it were, as to who should run off the first four or five questions. In my experience on the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, hon. Members in discussion come to a reasonable solution. After all, we are reasonable people.
I come now to the proposal dealing with the new Select Committee on Supply. I agree entirely with the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) and the campaign which has been conducted by my hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford 763 (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne)—at one stage almost single-handed—to bring about change in this matter. It is evident to all of us that the capacity of the House to control Supply has slipped away. It can be changed in many ways, and I am sure that the new Select Committee will examine the matter. The question of the capacity of either Select Committees or the House to vote in detail upon Supply will arise. I rather favour that. A vote in the House commands not only one's footsteps to come here but one's mind to think about what one is voting upon.
We have had absurd examples during this Session. On the Consolidated Fund Bill we can debate anything for as long as we wish—at least until 9 or 10 o'clock in the morning—with no votes being taken. The votes are taken virtually on the nod. Of course, matters can be voted upon in certain instances, but without debate. That seems inappropriate. The House must change its method of control over Supply.
I support the plea made by the right hon. Member for Down, South about a Sessional Committee on procedure. Certain matters constantly recur in the House. For example, again and again hon. Members ask: how can we stop the solemn farce of 20 questions being placed on the Order Paper asking the Prime Minister to state her engagements for the day? Ideally, this could be looked at by a Sessional Committee. As regards Prime Minister's Question Time, one simple change which should be considered is that if 20 questions appear on the day after they should appear all asking my right hon. Friend about her engagements for the day, on the second day all but one should be taken off the Order Paper. That would leave one general question, because the House wants to get at the general issue at least once. That would have the effect of increasing the ingenuity of hon. Members in trying to formulate more interesting and varied questions. That would also have the effect of the Prime Minister of the day welcoming the acceptance of a broader range of questions.
A Sessional Committee could look at certain other matters, too. The whole matter of Private Bill legislation should be looked at again. This takes up a con- 764 siderable time of the House. Allowing the House to have virtually unrestricted debate on Second and Third Reading of Private Bills can become a considerable method of obstruction, if it is used as some Members have been able to use it. Perhaps the use of Private Members' Time should also be looked at.
When the Committee is set up in the new Session, rather than having a separate Sessional Procedure Committee, perhaps the Sessional Committee could be given powers to consider other matters referred to it by the House. There should be some mechanism whereby that can be done.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for having brought forward and promoted the procedural changes of the last Select Committee on Procedure. Laudatory adjectives have showered upon him—I do not intend to add any more—to such an extent that they have driven him from the Chamber. However, I believe that he has the interests of the House at heart by being interested in procedural change and in bringing about the possibility of such change.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
I thought that someone had warned the Leader of the House that he was about to receive a compliment from the Liberal Bench and, therefore that he had better make himself scarce lest it should be reported in any dangerous quarter. I follow the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker) in saying that we owe a debt of gratitude to the Leader of the House, particularly those of us who have toiled for many years on the Procedure Committee, for the care that he has devoted to securing time for the debate of our recommendations and, indeed, giving his personal support to so many of those recommendations. We should be grateful to him for that.
The hon. Member for St. Marylebone seemed eager to add to the tasks of the new Procedure Committee which is recommended in one of the motions. I hope that he is offering himself for service on it. He is certainly giving it a great deal to do if he expects it to combine the Sessional Committee's functions with the major tasks of reviewing procedures on Supply and expenditure which are to be remitted to it. I hope that he makes that 765 offer, because he served with distinction on the previous Committee.
I follow the hon. Member for St. Marylebone and some other hon. Members in wholeheartedly endorsing the proposals about Public Bill procedure, which are one of the features which today's motions seek to bring into effect experimentally. My answer to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) is "Let us see." It is the same answer as I would give to other hon. Members who have intervened is such a way as to suggest that this procedure will collapse or become a farce—let us see.
I genuinely believe that, given the opportunity to question witnesses at a number of sittings, the members of a Standing Committee will be able to make profitable use of them. I do not believe that we should select entirely uncontroversial Bills for this purpose. I think that if we are to take about three Bills, we could have a range of Bills—perhaps one of a highly technical character and one of a much more controversial character, and I add my voice to that of the shadow Shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), in saying that I hope that the nationality Bill gets something of this kind of treatment, because it is a Bill on which we need to hear the views of people who are qualified to advise us from outside the House.
I do not believe that this replaces in any way the line-by-line scrutiny of Bills. I do not think that any of the advocates of the Public Bill procedure think that that aspect is unnecessary. We all know its faults and the ways in which it can be misused, but it remains a fundamental cornerstone of our procedures that no Bill can get through the House without being scrutinised line by line. That is why we all get very agitated when guillotine motions are before us. It is also why some of us are very critical of the delegated legislation procedure—a matter to which I shall return shortly—because one of the things that that does not do is to afford line-by-line scrutiny of what eventually becomes the law of the land. Nor is the new Public Bill procedure the same as having pre-legislation Committees. It serves quite a different function, because one is sure in the case of this new procedure that the same Members as hear the witnesses are those who go 766 on and do the line-by-line scrutiny. It is not one group of people set aside in a previous Session, perhaps, giving their views as to whether there should be legislation in this field and what it should contain, who are then replaced by perhaps a largely different group who go on to study the Bill in detail. This attempt to marry two different activities, although it may have problems, is worth trying. Let us see how well it works.
It is right that we should be seeking to make improvements in the consideration of European business. I am glad that these recommendations of the Procedure Committee are before the House. I strongly support the setting up of a new Procedure Committee, the focus of whose activity will be procedure of Supply and finance. That is long overdue.
The Procedure Committee in the last Session felt that, with the tasks that it had undertaken, it was quite unable to undertake the major and quite separate duty of devising better procedures for Supply. We very much need to do that. The report of the Treasury and Civil Service Affairs Committee underlined that need. There is now no one, I think, who dissents from the proposition that we must improve our scrutiny of Supply.
But that leaves us with the major area on which I want to concentrate. It was referred to at some length by the right hon. Member for Down, South, with whom I wholly agree on this matter. It is the procedure on statutory instruments. In my service in the House, which is relatively short, and certainly in the time of the right hon. Gentleman's service here, the area covered by statutory instruments, the extent and the number of them have extended enormously and there is now almost nothing which cannot pass into the law of the land by way of statutory instrument, including taxation. One thinks of value added tax, or of what is in practice, though not in theory, taxation—the national insurance fund, major decisions on the levels of contributions for which are implemented through the statutory instruments procedure.
Increasingly there is a tendency for Ministers to seek statutory instrument powers, delegated legislation powers, for whole sections of Bills. Very often Members serving on a Committee on a Bill are unwilling to challenge Ministers' 767 desires to do this because it arises from attempts to make concessions. During proceedings on a Bill, Ministers often say "I am willing to go some way to meet the point that the hon. Member makes, but I do not feel that it would be possible to do it in the Bill now. However, if I am given the power to make regulations on this aspect, I shall do so in the spirit of the amendments moved by the hon. Member." So, quick as a flash, written into law is yet another area in which delegated legislation procedure is all that will govern a whole area of activity. It is done in that case for quite genuine reasons, but it seriously undermines the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of that legislation.
That situation has worsened steadily over a period of years. Even the affirmative procedure for delegated legislation has its deficiencies in the fact that all the debates we have are on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, in which the House cannot express an opinion on any aspect of what is before it but can only decide whether it accepts or rejects the instrument. One of the minor reasons for which the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has tabled an amendment, with my support, is simply to ensure that the decisions on affirmative resolutions eventually taken by this House are taken at a proper time, at the commencement of public business; and that was, as I understand it, always the intention but has never been given effect to in the Standing Orders.
The affirmative procedure seems almost watertight when compared with the negative procedure, which is bad enough in theory and even worse in practice. Under the negative procedure an instrument comes into force unless it is annulled by either House of Parliament and the Prayer procedures upon which we depend in order to try to challenge these instruments have a time limit set to them and no guarantee is available to Members that they can secure either a debate or a vote on the Prayer that they have tabled. In many instances the Government can simply defer the debate until the time limit has expired, or refer the debate to a Committee, which has the consequence, as the right hon. Member for Down, South illustrated, that no vote of any significance can take place on the Prayer.
768 It is worth reminding the House that until 1954 all Prayers could be debated on the Floor of the House. There was no restriction on the ability of the House to debate Prayers. Any Member could put a Prayer down for debate on any sitting day except a Friday, and unless a closure was carried, there was no time limit on the duration of these debates on Prayers. Then, in 1954, the 11.30 pm rule came in. That ensured that there were only the four periods a week between 10 pm and 11.30 pm in which Prayers could be discussed. Of course, many of these periods are eaten into by Divisions lasting until 10.15 pm or 10.30 pm, thus reducing time for the debate to only an hour or so.
I think that it was the right hon. Member for Crosby (Sir G. Page) who said that when that recommendation was made it was still assumed that all Prayers would be debated on the Floor of the House and time would be found for them. The then Leader of the House, Captain Crookshank, said that if hon. Gentlemen tabled Prayers, time would be found for Prayers. We can see how very far we have moved from that position.
In 1973 the Procedure Committee was set up to provide a place to which to send Prayers that had not been debated. That is not objectionable in principle. I do not dissent from the view that many statutory instruments can properly be discussed in a Committee—if that Committee can reach a conclusion on them or, at the very least, if we are certain that the House can reach a conclusion on them following the debate in the Committee. At present neither of these things is available. It is not merely that the Committee has no effusion, as the right hon. Member for Down, South puts it; there is no effusion at all, because the matter need never come back to the Floor of the House in any way other than that of the formal report "That the Committee has considered the instrument"; and that formal report still comes to the House even if the Committee has voted that it has not considered the instrument.
We had a classic example only a few months ago. Hon. Members spent some time in Committee discussing whether one should be prohibited from having a sidecar on the right-hand side of a motor cycle. The Committee came to the conclusion that the instrument should not be 769 approved, and voted that it had not considered it. However, the formality is that a report must be made to the House that the Committee has considered the matter, which means that the Committee's decision is of no effect. That is a farcical procedure. It is repugnant to the notion that the purpose of the House is to make the laws of the land and to scrutinise their making. Surely there can be no remaining defence for such procedures.
The right hon. Member for Down, South suggested that the Government were unwilling to make reforms because, if they did so, they would have to secure a majority on the Committees to protect themselves from defeats in the morning on statutory instruments. That has already happened. Even under the present system, the Government find it embarrassing if a Committee votes that it has not considered the instrument, even though no consequences flow from that happening.
On a recent occasion we waited for a Committee to begin its consideration of a statutory instrument while Government whips buzzed around keeping Conservative Members out of the Committee because of the fear that a vote might take place on the consideration motion. It was not until a certain hon. Member had given an assurance that he would not seek a vote on the motion that a quorum was found to enable the Committee to begin. All the problems concerned with the Government having to ensure that they have a majority are with us now. They do not represent an argument against ensuring that the Committees may reach a decision. It is right that the Procedure Committee should have made such recommendations and that they should now be before us, thanks to the initiative of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English). His amendment, to which my name is added, sets out quite precisely the recommendations made by the Procedure Committee.
I still do not consider—I did not consider at the time—that the recommendations are adequate to ensure full control of delegated legislation for the House. However, they represent an improvement on what we have now. I appeal to hon. Members to support the amendment. It cannot be represented as a devastating weakening of the Government's control 770 over delegated legislation or an imperilling of their legislative programme.
The opportunity on affirmative instruments that the recommendations would provide is merely for a meaningful vote to take place and for the Committee to give an opinion on the changes that might be desirable. Under the negative procedure, the hurdles that the Committee left in the way of hon. Members wanting to secure that the measures returned to the House are quite considerable. A negative instrument, under the procedures recommended, would be considered on a motion that the Government recommend the annulment, withdrawal or approval of the motion. That means that the vote, at least, would be on a matter of substance. The Committee did not extend to negative procedure the suggestion that the motion should be open to amendment. It will still be a take-it-or-leave-it debate on negative instruments.
If a Committee tries to throw out a statutory instrument and recommends annulment, and the Government do not find time for a debate on the matter in the House within seven days, it is recommended that Members should have the right to insist on a one-hour debate. Incidentally, that would secure a vote on the issue. That is the most significant improvement that the Committee has suggested. It is a desirable improvement and I do not see how it can reasonably be opposed. The only flaw is that it could lead to the Government refusing to send Prayers against instruments to Committee in the first place. At present they have little incentive to do so, even though they sometimes adopt that procedure. They might be given an incentive by this procedure.
There are further steps that hon. Members could take within the proposals it the Government refused to send an instrument to Committee. However, in doing so they would have to have the support of half of the House, which is a pretty large number. If the opposition parties and a substantial minority of the Government grouped together in their opposition to a statutory instrument, I rather suspect that the Government would be forced to take action even if their action did not appear formally on the Order Paper. That is an illustration of how 771 careful the Committee was in its recommendations not to overstep the Government's claim that their legislative timetable and demands must be respected. These are modest recommendations.
The Leader of the House said that he welcomed the amendment. I do not know whether he intended to use the word "welcomed". However, I hope that it means that the Government will give their support to the implementation of this feature of the Procedure Committee's recommendations.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
I am not following the hon. Gentleman when he talks about the commencement of public business and a one-hour debate. Does his amendment suggest that the prayer against a statutory instrument would take place at the commencement of public business in the Chamber, or does it mean that that procedure would take place in Committee?
§ Mr. Beith
I said much earlier that the vote on an affirmative instrument—that is merely a vote and not the debate—should take place at the commencement of public business. As for the rare cases where a Committee seeks to carry a Prayer and thereby throw out a statutory instrument, the Committee should be able to secure, if the Government do not make their own provision for a one-hour debate. I cannot remember whether that was to be at the commencement of public business or at a later stage. I think that a later time was favoured.
Our only determination was to ensure that a one-hour debate—a very short debate—would take place. By that process a vote was guaranteed and adverse recommendations from Statutory Instruments Committees could no longer be buried, as they are now, in entirely misleading reports in the Journal of the House that the matter had been considered.
The effect of the present procedure is to ignore and to bury a clear recommendation from a Committee that some further action should be taken. The effect is to disregard a recommendation and falsely to report in the Journal of the House that it is satisfied with what has happened.
I should like to go further than the recommendations that are before us and 772 ensure that amendable motions are the basis of discussion on statutory instruments on the Floor of the House and in Committee. I do not want the Government to be able to prevent a debate on a Prayer, whether in Committee or on the Floor of the House. I would not expect half of the House to have to be in support of the Prayer for that mechanism to be triggered. As few as 10 Members should be sufficient to secure that a vote can take place on a Prayer where there is some issue and controversy. However, that is not before us today.
We are dealing with modest recommendations. The Leader of the House has told us that he regards the debate as a means of completing the process of dealing with the epoch-making recommendations, as he described them, of the Procedure Committee. We shall not complete that process unless we do something about our delegated legislation procedure. Let us make a beginning by accepting the recommendations that the Select Committee has put before the House.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
I shall not detain the House for long. I say to the House, and especially for the ears of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, that I welcome the innovations and reforms that have been enacted so speedily. My right hon. Friend has not become bogged down in the conservatism that is so easily the lot of Leaders of the House. He has listened to the arguments for reform and advanced rapidly in some respects. In some ways there has been rapid advance that might give us cause for reconsideration.
I welcome, I think, the 12 new Select Committees. I think that I have served on Select Committees for about 13 years. I am not on one now. I do not say that in any sense of sour grapes. I understand that I was turned down for one of the new Select Committees because I had an outside interest. When I reflected on that I did not immediately get into a state of high dudgeon and complain to the Leader of the House. In fact, I thought that perhaps the Committee had a point. But on further reflection I realised that the ultimate debate in this House is not upstairs. It is in this Chamber. I still have such an interest when I take part in the 773 debate on the Floor of the House. I am obliged to declare that interest. It is published in the Register of Members' Interests and I know that all hon. Members know my interest. It happens that I am concerned with an industry that is sensitive in Government. I am a director of a pharmaceutical company. I believe that there are only two or three hon. Members who are so concerned.
I believe it is wrong that an hon. Member who has an outside interest that might appear to be close to the interests of the work of the Committee should be excluded from that Committee. He could exclude himself from it. I was told that because of my interest I had not been chosen and I readily accepted that. But on reflection I think that the House should consider whether it is wise to say that a Member is not suited for a Select Committee because of a special interest. There are occasions when he seeks to speak on a subject, for example, on the general area of health. This House often considers the National Health Service or some Bill relating to health. I believe that it is wrong, when the House is moving along a new road which tends to empty the Chamber of Members and fill Committee rooms, to exclude hon. Members who may have specialist knowledge of subjects from opportunities upstairs that they may not have down here.
§ Mr. English
I have great sympathy with the hon. Member. For example, I think that it would be quite inappropriate to exclude lawyers from the Committee that was concerned with various types of changes in the law. However, all that the Procedure Committee did was to recommend that the membership of these Committees be recommended to the House by a committee of fellow Members. We did not make any recommendations relevant to the hon. Members' case. We merely suggested that, instead of the Whips alone recommending membership. when they might take all sorts of considerations into account, a committee of Members should do so.
§ Mr. Crouch
I am grateful to the hon. Member for reminding us that it was not the Procedure Committee that made any such recommendation. I am not complaining, I am merely advising the House that such a decision was arrived at and I believe that the House should reflect on 774 it and consider whether it was a wise action. I hope that this trend will not develop further. If it does we shall keep out of Committees farmers who know about farming, engineers who know about engineering, journalists who know about the media, and even management consultants who know about managing industry.
§ Mr. Hooley
The hon. Member is confusing two points. There is all the difference in the world between having engineers who know about engineering and architects who know about architecture on a Committee and having people who have a direct financial stake or interest in the matter before the Committee. It is not a question of having professional specialist knowledge. That is quite a different matter.
§ Mr. Crouch
It is up to the House to reflect on what I have said and to weigh up the case that I have made for persons like myself.
I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker) is not in his place. I am sorry about that, because I am about to let him down. He spoke to me before the Summer Recess asking me to support motion 3—the recommendation of the Committee that we should form Special Standing Committees. He wished to advance that case and he has been successful in getting the Leader of the House to put the motion on the Order Paper. When I first heard of this I thought that anything which could improve the line-by-line study of a Bill in Committee would be an advantage. However. the advantage of a debate is that one listens to the other side of the of the argument. I stayed in the Chamber particularly to hear the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) argue cogently against the proposal and I then listened to the reply by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone, also well argued. But I think that on balance I come down on the side of the right hon. Member for Down, South because I have served on Standing Committees and Select Committees and there is a big difference between the parliamentarian when he is on a Standing Committee and when he is on a Select Committee.
When one serves on a Standing Committee one is reflecting this Chamber upstairs. Every hon. Member has his 775 party allegiance and wears his party clothes. He is conscious of the party Whips and if he wishes to argue on a particular point it takes courage to go against party policy. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Some hon. Members may not think that it takes courage—well, perhaps one should say that it takes something—interest and a little energy perhaps.
It is quite a different matter when one goes to serve on a Select Committee. In my experience of eight years on the old Select Committee on Nationalised Industries and five years on the Public Accounts Committee I remember only one occasion on which we came to a vote and were split. That was at least 10 years ago, in the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. It is extraordinary that on Select Committees hon. Members come together with an examining approach, questioning witnesses and considering memoranda. There is very much an investigative atmosphere in Select Committees.
If a Standing Committee, wearing its party clothes, forgets those party clothes for the first three or four sittings and sits around the table, I wonder whether the experiment will be successful. Admittedly, we know that we shall have a change of chairman so we shall not have a participating chairman. He will be completely impartial, but I still cannot help wondering whether this experiment will be just an escapade in reform.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
My hon. Friend has emphasised the party political character of Standing Committees, but would he not agree that that is one of the important criticisms of the process by which we scrutinise legislation? If we give Standing Committees the power to call witnesses, surely we shall give them a certain independence of the political party and surely that is a desirable process.
§ Mr. Crouch
I am in two minds about this. It is not so much that I enjoy the adversarial approach, either here or upstairs, and sometimes I prefer the analytical parliamentary approach of the investigative activities of Select Committees, but there is a point about pursuing a particular aim which is the aim of one party. It is the Government's aim to get a Bill into a certain shape and it is 776 the Opposition's aim to oppose it in many areas. That is the adversarial and party approach.
No Procedure Committee, or even recommendation from this House, can alter the attitude of hon. Members and the way that they behave, unless we limit the length of speeches of those seeking to oppose measures upstairs, as we do on Second Reading. There is a great deal of filibustering in Committees, which makes them tedious. In the end, one is faced with the sanction of time. On the Government Benches one is asked to shut up, because the legislation must go through, and never mind the small point that is being argued.
I am prepared to see what happens and accept a trial period of three Sessions.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
Does not the hon. Gentleman see that whether we are talking about Select Committees, Standing Committees or the Floor of the House, if hon. Members vote for things that they do not believe in strongly, the whole place is a waste of time, irrespective of the procedures that we adopt?
§ Mr. Crouch
I entirely agree, but that is not the point that I was making. We have heard that many hon. Members on the Government Benches in Committee say nothing because they do not want to waste time. They feel that the talking will be done by the Opposition. That does not apply to me, but the hon. Gentleman should see what happens to the Whips when I exercise my freedom as a critic of all and sundry.
Now that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marleybone has returned, I am prepared to say that I shall give the experiment at least three tries, but I am not wholly convinced that we can turn ourselves from a Select Committee into a Standing Committee successfully. For example, on the Health Services Bill we were in Committee for two months. Had we sent for persons and papers, we should have taken a further two months on each detailed aspect, such as whether family practitioner committees should continue, or whether we should raise money for hospitals through flag days. We used the old procedure, and hon. Members had to equip themselves with what knowledge they could by getting briefed on these subjects.
777 I listened to the arguments put forward by the right hon. Members for Down, South and for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) on the motion dealing with European Community legislation. The right hon. Member for Battersea, North is not a very strong European. I still am. I am not terribly happy about the latitude given in subparagraph (b) for the Minister apparently to bypass Parliament when it suits him. I doubt whether I could support that, as a strong European. There must be an opportunity to pray against and to protest. Sometimes it is only one hon. Member who has spotted a significant point in a piece of legislation coming out of the Community that may be detrimental to his constituents' or the country's interests. If such matters can be decided without the House being consulted, and only later will the House know, we are shrugging off an essential duty of this Chamber.
§ 7.4 pm
§ Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Erdington)
I propose to deal solely with the Select Committee on European Legislation, of which I am Chairman. I hope to express the views of the members of the Committee.
That Committee is in an entirely different position from other parliamentary bodies which scrutinise the Executive and Government of this country. Our Committee scrutinises the activities, legislation and propositions of a body outside this country in which our Government plays a small part. Also, we are considering legislation that this Parliament cannot reverse. We must always remember that. That is why such attention was paid to that procedure by the Foster committee several years ago.
Members of the Committee generally welcome the proposals, on the Scrutiny Committee with certain reservations. Apart from the proposals from the Procedure Committee, most of the others have been suggested by our own Committee.
With regard to motion 4, the present procedure in the Standing Committee on European Community documents has been a farce. The Committee had a limited amount of time and has come to no conclusion. There has been no impact on the proceedings of the House. For all practical purposes, this Committee has 778 been abandoned. I welcome the proposals in motion 4.
With regard to whether a piece of legislation or a document should be discussed by the House or in Standing Committee, our Committee has already stated that it will adopt its former practice of making its own recommendation. Naturally it is for the Government or for the 20 hon. Members who stand up to decide whether that recommendation is accepted.
Our Committee generally favours the line proposed in the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) to secure that the matter should be voted on at the commencement of business or at 10 o'clock. These are only votes and not a debate, and will not exert undue pressure on the time of the House or the Government. After a Committee has made a recommendation, the business should not be delegated to a time late in the night, with only a few hon. Members remaining. I hope that the Government will accept the amendment.
On motion 5, the Leader of the House knows that on behalf of my Committee I have made representations suggesting a form of words which, in general, have been accepted. We believe that if, for special reasons, a Minister agrees to a decision in Brussels before a debate takes place in the House, he should not only explain his reasons to the House but should explain them orally. For that reason, I recommend the right hon. Gentleman to accept amendment (d) in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North. On a few occasions recently Ministers have got out of their obligations by making written statements in reply to questions. That is not good enough.
The members of my Committee agree that the occasions when a Minister has to go outside our recommendations and agree to a decision in Brussels should be few and far between and should occur only in exceptional circumstances. We say that there should be a loophole, but that it should be used rarely. Our recommendation should not impose an undue burden on Government time.
§ Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)
I pay tribute to the good work that the hon. Gentleman has done as Chairman of his Committee, but on the principle of expressio unius est exclusio 779 alterius, with which he will be familiar, does he mean by implication that the House should withhold approval from the other amendments in the name of the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and should leave the wording as it is, with the Minister as his own judge of whether reasons are special?
My experience of the legislative processes of the Community, which is not inconsiderable after six years, is that the pace is slow and it is difficult to envisage circumstances in which there would be such an emergency as to deny the application of the principles indicated in the amendments.
§ Mr. Silverman
I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman to some extent. If the Government would organise their business within the Community properly, many of the occasions when urgent action became necessary could be avoided, but I accept that there may be exceptional circumstances or unforeseen developments that call for sudden action. I am prepared to agree that a Minister should have a loophole, but he should immediately afterwards give an oral statement to the House on which he can be questioned.
Amendment (a), which has not been selected, provided for a ban on Ministers agreeing to anything in Brussels before a debate in the House.
§ Mr. Spearing
Do I understand that in my hon. Friend's recommendation concerning amendment (d) he was expressing the view of the Scrutiny Committee. which was without dissent? Is the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) asking my hon. Friend to state his personal position on amendments (b) and (c) or the view of the Scrutiny Committee, which, in fact, may not yet have taken a view on those matters?
§ Mr. Silverman
There has been some discussion in the Scrutiny Committee and I shall be able to express the Commit. tee's view on amendments (b) and (c).
Amendment (c) deals with the Scrutiny Committee itself, giving consent. The difficulty is that that is not practicable. One of the main difficulties arises during 780 the long recess when the Committee does not meet. In cases of urgency, the problem is usually that it is not possible to go to the Committee in time. The Committee is being reasonable. It says that there needs to be a loophole, but that it should be used only in exceptional cases.
Amendment (b) proposes that when a matter comes before the House it should be on a motion. The Committee has discussed that proposal but has not come to a conclusion on it. In recent years. under successive Governments, such matters have usually come before the House as a motion. The amendment has been complied with in practice and the Committee has little to complain about. I do not know whether it is necessary to press the amendment.
Motion 10 arises out of a report of the Committee in July 1978 following a shambles in the House when legislation that was not based on a Commission document was debated in the House. An hon. Member then pointed out that the matter did not come within the provisions of our Standing Orders because it was not a Commission document. Motion 10 places other Community documents on the same basis as Commission documents.
I understand that my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North does not intend to press his amendment (b), which was probably tabled because of a misunderstanding of the position. We approve of this. It is not important. All it amounts to is a proposal that it is not necessary to move a motion in order to get these instruments discussed by the House after the interruption of business at 10 pm.
Those are the Committee's views. I hope that it will be possible for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to indicate that he is prepared to accept the two amendments that I have mentioned. They are essential and will impose no particular burden on the Government. Generally speaking, we welcome the proposals.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)
I shall focus the attention of the House on the recommendations concerning the Special Standing Committees. I welcome the recommendations. They are important. One of the most telling criticisms of the 781 way in which this House conducts itself is the manner in which hon. Members process and scrutinise legislation. Although I have been in this place for only 14 months, I feel that we are failing to do that task properly. One of the problems is the volume of legislation. I thought that I should remind myself of the volume of legislation that we are passing by contrasting the 1911 Parliament with the 1975 Parliament.
Hon. Members will recall that the 1911 Parliament was one of the great reforming Parliaments of all time. I looked in the Library at the volume of statutes. I found that the 1911 Parliament passed 58 statutes which were contained fairly comfortably in one volume. When I looked at 1975—I chose that year as an example with no hostile intention—I found that 83 statutes were passed, which were incorporated in three volumes, each of them equal to the 1911 volume. This paid no attention to the statutory instruments, which were contained in no fewer than 15 volumes. One could not conceive of bringing that number of volumes into the Chamber for the purposes of demonstration.
This burden and volume of legislation is a real concern. The House must grasp, as I am sure it does, the fact that much of the legislation that we are passing is of an extremely complex character and imposes considerable burdens on large and small sections of the population. Both in Standing Committee and in this Chamber, hon. Members are ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of the legislation involved. Finance Bills of an enormously convoluted kind come before us. If we wish to scruntinise that legislation, we are bound to rely on our own researches, on our own Front Bench—always a doubtful thing to do—on the party brief, on the Library, or on people who are keen enough to lobby us. This process, by its very nature, is inadequate.
It is highly desirable that interested bodies should come before a Committee to explain that legislation is defective or oppressive, giving reasons and suggesting that hon. Members should do this, that or the other. I believe that Standing Committees and this Chamber should be well informed. I believe that, if possible, hon. Members should be more independent than is the case at present. The natural tendency simply to support one's 782 Front Bench derogates enormously from the authority of this place.
I should like to make two points about the proposal concerning Special Standing Committees. I recognise why the fact-finding process should be confined to 28 days. That seems perfectly sensible. I do not understand, however, why we should say that there should be only four half-day sessions, especially when one is to be in private and only three are to be public evidence-taking sessions. I cannot understand why the Chairman of such a Standing Committee should not say We will take as much evidence as we deem necessary provided that we do not exceed the 28-day period."
§ Mr. Spearing
I can answer the hon. Gentleman's question straight away. My recollection of the reason is that, if a proposal was wide open within the 28 days in which that Committee could meet on a large number of occasions and provide a particularly wide opportunity for the time and commitment of hon. Members, the principal proposal would not have been acceptable to the House. The limitations were therefore written in.
§ Mr. Hogg
That is a good pragmatic argument in favour of the restriction. It does not go to the principle that I put forward, namely, that the fact-finding process should be as wide and extensive as possible. This brings me to the other point with which I believe the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) will also disagree. Standing Committees, so far as I am aware, do not have power to instruct advisers, although Select Committees do have the power. I can see no reason in principle why a Standing Committee, serving as a Special Standing Committee, should not have the power to instruct independent advisers to advise it. It would be helpful.
I listened with considerable interest to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). The criticisms of his speech can also be directed at the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch). They argued that we should see in the Standing Committees merely a reflection of this House. If it is a fair criticism of this House to say that it is imprisoned by the party system, the same criticism is to be made of the Standing Committees. I want to loosen the vice. I will do anything that I believe 783 will release the grip of the party system of government on the present method of conducting our affairs. That is one of the important reasons why we should give the Standing Committees both the power to call evidence and the power to instruct advisers. We want to give these bodies—essentially our only scrutiny bodies—a status that is slowly becoming independent of the Executive or, alternatively, of the Opposition.
I want to strengthen the view that these Committees have an obligation, not primarily to their party, whether Government or Opposition, but to their own judgment. If these Committees were given the power to sit and listen to evidence and to assess the professional advice that was tendered, they would be more independent than at present. I would welcome that development.
§ Mr. Hogg
This is a danger. I am not suggesting that any proposal that I have put forward would remedy this problem. It is deep-seated in the way that we govern ourselves. If one goes back in our history, one finds that when we were an effective controlling body, we were essentially independent of the Executive. Going back a long time, one finds that the King's Ministers were outside Parliament, at least in many of their functions. The process of control can be properly operated only when there is a degree of separation between the legislature and the Executive. When they are merged in the same body the process of scrutiny and control becomes virtually impossible. For that reason, I emphasise the importance of the independence of any institution through which we exercise our powers of scrutiny and control.
§ Mr. Crouch
Is not my hon. Friend confusing the function of an hon. Member when he is on a Committee to examine a Bill? If he wants to take Committees out of the vice of party control and allow them freedom upstairs to operate as Select Committees—taking advice and not relying on the party line—he 784 should go the whole way and say that Bills should be examined completely by the Select Committee process. Does he agree that after the three or four sittings, or the 28 days, the Committee members will revert to their party positions and return to the Standing Committee process?
§ Mr. Hogg
I do not agree. It is clear that the scrutiny of a Bill has to be entrusted to an ad hoc Committee. It is not reasonable to ask Select Committees to maintain detailed scrutiny on Bills as they come from the House. We have to rely on ad hoc Committees. If we do that the evidence-taking process must be entrusted to that Committee which subsequently will have to review the legislation line by line.
If we are effectively to discharge our traditional and historic task, which is scrutiny of legislation and control of public finance, we must try to fortify the independence of the institutions upon which we rely for that purpose. The establishment of a Special Standing Committee is a small step towards that. I support it strongly on that ground.
§ Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)
I welcome the proposals to establish Special Standing Committees on Bills and to convene a Procedure Committee to consider Supply. However, in both cases my welcome is somewhat qualified.
It is obvious that the present system of Standing Committees on Bills is not adequate for an effective parliamentary scrutiny of the content of Bills. Standing Committees make a genuine attempt to amend Bills, but much more time is spent simply in attempts to delay them. Much time is also spent genuinely seeking explanations of the content and meaning of Bills. Many of the explanations would be better sought under a Select Committee format through the cross-examination of Ministers, civil servants and expert witnesses. Explanatory papers, which might be important, could be placed before the Committee. This could provide a genuine opportunity to open an enhanced debate on public legislation—to reveal thoroughly the intention of the legislation, for example.
The reform involves a considerable risk which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) 785 and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch). The risk is that, far from being an attempt to unravel the complexities of a Bill in a more or less objective way, it becomes simply a time-consuming exercise in which rival tame experts defend or attack the Bill at the instigation of the Government or the Opposition. The Government might choose to wheel in civil servants to say that the Bill was a noble and essential creation; the Opposition might wheel in experts to say that it was rubbish. We should still not comprehend the intent of the Bill and we should be no more enlightened at the end of the exercise than at the beginning. That risk apart, the reform is well worth our perseverance.
If Committee members could bring themselves to behave responsibly, a Finance Bill would be the ideal Bill for such a Committee. Much of the interchange on a Finance Bill involves asking Ministers questions. The Minister turns to a civil servant for the meaning of "a close company" or "an oilfield" and the Committee has to wait for a distorted reply to come back through the Minister from the civil servant.
§ Mr. Hooley
Does my hon. Friend agree that the language in Finance Bills is totally unintelligible? Does he agree that the drafting of legislation is a fundamental reason why we do not discuss matters properly? The language used in Finance Bills in particular is ridiculous.
§ Mr. Garrett
That is all the more reason for trying a new method to unravel the complexities of the language.
The first main reform proposed by the 1977–78 Procedure Committee to be implemented was the setting up of departmentally related Select Committees. This was an important development and has been universally welcomed. However, the House was provided with a structure for scrutiny but with little else. It was only a first step and the Leader of the House over-emphasised the achievements that he attributed to the Select Committee structure. Much more development needs to take place.
In order to make the Committees fully effective, at least three changes are required. First, they must develop a more systematic approach to the Departments that they shadow. Secondly, the Commit- 786 tees need more research staff. They need full-time expert research staff instead of outside experts engaged for the duration of the inquiry. They need some countervailing power of their own in research and analysis to set against research and analysis that the Government provide in evidence.
Thirdly, the Committees can function with full effect only if they are provided with far better information on the performance of Departments. They need what one might call a management information system rather than a historical compendium, which the supply procedure has become.
When I say that the Committee should take a more systematic approach, I refer to the way in which they operate now. Apart from the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, which I exempt from the criticism which I am about to make, and up to a point the Social Services Committee, the Committees concentrate on single issues. For example, the Defence Committee has examined munitions storage and pilot training. The Agriculture Committee examined the CAP on dairy products and animal welfare. The Education and Science Committee studied the British library services, the funding of courses in higher education and the future of the promenade concerts. The Home Affairs Committee has studied the "sus" laws.
They are important questions and they have given rise to some useful reports which have thrown light into dark corners. However, they illustrate the preoccupation of many hon. Members with single issues rather than with departmental. overall systems for setting objectives and priorities in policy programmes. By concentrating on single issues, the Departments are never obliged to justify their spending or their aims in respect of producing some public good.
In addition to studying individual issues, it would be more sensible to set up Sub-Committees which could ask each Department "What are your overall priorities? What is the justification? What is the aim of your spending programmes? How do you propose to measure their impact on the community? What is the operating efficiency of the sections in your Department?" The Committees should view the Departments 787 as management systems with outputs in services and other community goods.
For such an approach, the Committees must employ expert staffs. They must have permanent specialists. Each Committee would need a dozen or more such experts. However, I understand that there is strong resistance from the Government to the provision of specialist staff on that scale. There would be, would there not? They would arm the specialist Committees with much more effective tools of inquiry. It is incredible that that nineteenth century relic, the Public Accounts Committee, has 650 staff examining whether books balance, yet the 10 departmentally related Select Committees that are supposed to consider policy have fewer than 50 staff between them. That gives an idea of the order of priorities in the House.
In addition to more staff, the Select Committee system cannot function without better information—information that would enable Departments to answer the questions that I have posed. We do not have the information to enable us to examine the effectiveness of spending programmes or the efficiency of Departments. Parliament has never insisted on the provision of information. The regular information that we have is provided by the Supply procedure of Estimates, Votes and Appropriation accounts that was invented in the 1860s to stop fraud and misappropriation. It had nothing to do with explaining to Parliament the purposes of the expenditure. In the public expenditure surveys that are steadily becoming less informative and the mass of unrelated incomprehensible statistical data poured out by Departments, we have a mountain of data but no information. We are told what we are spending but never what we are buying. We cannot tell from the Supply procedure the efficiency of a Department. We cannot tell from the public expenditure surveys how effective is a spending programme.
For years the Expenditure Committee asked for departmental spending to be broken down by accountable units within a Department so that we could examine the efficiency of individual parts of Departments, measure effectiveness—the 788 results achieved by the spending programmes and attach the results to spending programmes in the public expenditure survey. The Treasury has always said that that was too difficult. It said that it would be too burdensome for Members to be provided with that information and that the public expenditure survey would be a great volume instead of the slim, uninformative document that it is at present.
Those arguments are absolute rubbish. There have been massive advances in the processing of information and the management of Government in recent years that belie the Treasury position. For example, the United States federal budget—there is a copy of one a couple of years old in the Library—shows how it is possible to present information to a legislature that shows the purpose of spending and the results of past spending and illustrates the key policy decisions of departments.
Our Supply procedure shows separate Votes varying in size from thousands of millions of pounds to a few hundred pounds. It does not show which divisions of a Department are responsible for spending, and it tells us nothing of the past or prospective management performance of the Department. Let us consider the Class XI Health and Personal Social Services, Supply Estimates for 1980–81. The classification is nothing short of eccentric. In the health Vote, which comes to £7¾ billion, there is one category of £7 billion on advances to health authorities, yet separately shown is £28,000 to a midwife teachers' training college. It shows £540,000 on capital advances to health authorities, yet separately shown is £61,000 to certain religious bodies for hospital services. There is no sense in that sort of classification. I think that it was invented to conceal rather than to illuminate.
If we look at the chapter on health and personal social services, we would not know that the aim of that spending was to improve somebody's health. We would think that it existed solely to fund institutions, which is an intermediate objective. It is true that money should be available for the institutions, but we do not know at the end of the day whether the nation's health improved in any way as a result.
789 Similarly, the public expenditure survey, in which one might expect longer-term studies of the results of past spending, and the White Paper produced at the beginning of every year show huge aggregations of money thrown at what target we do not know. The current division in health expenditure gives only current and capital expenditure. At the back of that section there are all sorts of statistics that bear no relation to spending—for example, the number of in-patient days for a period five years ago, the size of doctors' caseloads, and so on. But we are unable to relate any of the output measures to the money spent. We have no idea of the intended impact in the community of the money spent. We have no idea of the relationships between programmes or between spending and tax reliefs. We have no idea whether it is more effective to make a grant or to give a tax relief to an individual as an anti-poverty measure, or to a company as a means to promote innovation. Those questions are not illustrated in the regular data that we receive.
We cannot use the account survey and the pile of statistics to establish public accountability. We cannot tell who carries the can. We cannot examine the policies or the results of Departments. We need to return to square one with the Supply procedure and ask ourselves what is the proper form of our national accounts that is required to enable us to examine the purposes, objectives and results of expenditure, the way that expenditure reflects policies, the efficiency with which Departments discharge their tasks and the accountability of Departments.
The details of Supply may seem technical and boring, but I believe that a reform of the Supply procedure and a new look at the way in which we present our national accounts and statistics is at the heart of public accountability and is long overdue for a thorough scrutiny by the House.
§ Sir Graham Page (Crosby)
I wish to address my remarks first to one or two of the recommendations concerning delegated legislation, which are not included in the Government motions. Much has been said already about our ineffective procedure for enabling Parliament to keep control of Executive legislation, delegated legislation, subordinate legis- 790 lation, or whatever one chooses to call it. But no Parliament could function if it did not use the device of delegated legislation. It would be overburdened with detail and would have to sit all hours of the day and all days of the year. However, as one has to resort to that sort of device to make Parliament and government function, it is essential that Parliament keeps control, or at least the power to supervise and control, the legislation so delegated.
First, we have a responsibility, which is only seldom realised, when we are passing the parent statute that gives the power to delegate. We have no rules or conventions as to the form of scrutiny that the delegated legislation is to take in any particular case. If a Minister is advised by his civil servants: "In this case your directions should be put in a statutory instrument", the Minister will probably reply "Good gracious, does that mean that I shall have to face prayers, or are you suggesting that I have to put it to an affirmative resolution?" The civil servant might reply "Oh no, Minister, simply say that it must be laid; there is no parliamentary procedure applicable to it then."
I shall not mention the Department concerned, but shortly before one Christmas there was an occasion when a Secretary of State made two orders. Those who knew how to lay an order in the House were too busy with the Christmas party. They sent the office boy to the House to lay the two instruments. The office boy had no clue how to lay them. He wandered around a rather empty House, which was in recess, returned to the Christmas party and put the orders on the desk. Came Easter! Another party was held, someone moved the desk and the orders were found behind it. That is the sort of disregard that Departments show for legislation which should at least be laid before the House. In that instance they lost only two orders.
Recently a Department lost two words when putting before the House an order which had to be made by the Secretary of State within a certain period after a report. It was found that two words were missing from the order. They were important since the order did not make sense without them. The Department therefore had it reprinted. Because it was rushed for time, it had the whole order 791 reprinted including the Secretary of State's signature. Therefore, the order that was eventually laid before the House was not one that had been signed by the Secretary of State. The principle put forward by those civil servants before the Scrutiny Committee was: "Oh, but this is what the Secretary of State intended to sign and therefore it must be deemed to be what he did sign and is quite in order." The House will find that reported in a report from the Scrutiny Committee.
So, we have seen how two orders and two words were lost. Recently there was the loss of two weeks when a Department failed to notice the expiry of an order that needed an affirmative resolution in the House within 28 days. As a result—and I do not think that the people concerned knew this—many people at the Lancaster House conference were sitting there for a fortnight and were illegally in the country. The Department was nervous to bring forward another order and show that it had made a mistake. In evidence to us it stated that it would shortly be embodied in an Act and so it did not matter that there had been a gap during which people had been in the country illegally. Perhaps the Secretary of State did not intend that, so it was deemed that the order he had made remained a good order.
That is the sort of way in which the officials in many Departments treat the need for this House to examine subordinate legislation. I can assure the House that some of the matters that come before the Scrutiny Committee are at times frightening. It is important, therefore, that at the beginning, when we are passing the parent statute, we should be clear about the form that the scrutiny will take. Should it merely be a statutory instrument that is laid before the House? Should it be one that is subject to annulment by a prayer within 40 days? Incidentally, that does not mean 40 days of the sitting of this House, because if the other place is sitting the 40 days start to run. If anyone intends to pray against an order that was made during the recess they had better calculate the days that the other place has been sitting if they are intending to table a prayer within 40 days of the order having been laid.
One might think that the best approach is by affirmative resolution, that we 792 should provide in the parent statute on as many occasions as we think right that the Secretary of State, being given a power to legislate, should do it by first laying a draft before the House. When my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House opened the debate he objected to any provision that such a draft should first be examined by the Scrutiny Committee before it came before the House. He said that that would clog up the wheels of government—I paraphrase him. He must know that there have been four occasions in the past few years when the Government—I think this applies to Governments of both parties—have brought a draft order before the House, the House has solemnly debated it, someone from the Scrutiny Committee has reminded the House that the Committee has not looked at it, the House has solemnly approved it, the Scrutiny Committee has then advised against it on the ground that it was ultra vires, and the draft has had to be withdrawn. That has been an utter waste of the time of the House.
Under present practices, therefore, it is not always safe to require an affirmative resolution for a draft that has been laid. We could greatly improve the procedure and create a certain amount of safety for the House if we were to adopt recommendation (15). That provides that a statutory instrument should not be brought before the House until it has been examined by the Select Committee and so reported on. We should also adopt recommendation (17), that if the House receives an adverse report from the Select Committee the affirmative procedure should apply if otherwise the negative procedure would apply; that is, if it is a statutory instrument against which an hon. Member can pray, and it is reported by the Select Committee, that would turn it into one which needs an affirmative resolution. That means that the Government must bring it before the House.
It may be that the House will not want to debate the instrument. It may go through on the nod. But, at least, then we are assured that there is an opportunity to debate it and not, as there is now with a prayer, the problem of trying to arrange through the usual channels that the prayer be given time. In such circumstances, unless one can work up a public scandal about the matter and have 793 it reported in headlines in the popular press, one is unlikely, through the usual channels, to get time set aside. Of course, if one does manage to get the time set aside for a prayer, the prayer is sent upstairs to one of the useless standing Committees dealing with statutory instruments.
Perhaps a small solution to the uselessness of the present Standing Committee procedures relating to statutory instruments would be that for at least a year after a Bill had received the Royal Assent or came into operation it should be possible to recall the Standing Committee that examined the Bill to deal with any statutory instruments issued by the Secretary of State. That Committee would know what power it intended to give the Secretary of State in the delegated legislation and would be able to deal with the statutory instruments with some interest.
The House must take back the power to control delegated legislation. The volume of that legislation is probably greater than the volume of statutes as we are passing them now. But certainly the details of the delegated legislation affect the individual citizen more closely than the clauses of a Bill or the sections of a statute. They contain the detail that affects the citizen and govern his life far more than the Acts that we put on the statute book.
I wish to move on to two other motions. The first is No. 3 dealing with the mixture of a Select and Standing Committee. I fear that if we tack a Select Committee on to a Standing Committee at the beginning of its sittings, that Select Committee will act in exactly the way a Standing Committee acts now on a poltically motivated Bill. There would be silence on one side and questioning from the other—and political questioning, too. I think that this recommendation was made before we set up the departmentally related Select Committees. Why have a dog and bark oneself? We have set up departmental Select Committees, and although some reports have been minority reports based on political affiliations, on the whole the Select Committees are not acting in the political way that a Standing Committee acts in dealing with a Bill. We should keep the Standing Committees and not try to combine them with—if I may say so—an amateur Select Committee.
794 The second part of motion 3 states that the undertakings should be dealt with in Standing Committee. I recall that I gave evidence suggesting that. It is a matter that I have always held to be complete nonsense as it stands. The draftsmen, although they may have an amendment on the Order Paper for weeks before it is reached, will never draft that amendment as the Government want it even though they are advising the Secretary of State to accept it. Either they should draft the amendment there and then or leave it to the end of the Committee proceedings, recommit the clauses that it affects, finish with it in Committee and not bring it back to the House on Report. That is a waste of the time of the House. I am sure that the proposal in the second part of motion 3 is satisfactory.
Motion 5 deals with the reporting to the House of European legislation to which a Minister has agreed before it has been debated in the House, as recommended by the European Legislation Committee. Having had experience of recent occasions when a Minister has reported by way of an answer to a planted written question, I find that unsatisfactory. It should be possible to question a Minister on why he thought that his agreement was so urgent. Therefore, I hope that the House will support amendment (b).
But I would like an assurance that what is meant by "European legislation" is not only that which applies directly but that which has to be embodied in our law either by statute, by delegated legislation, or otherwise.
Three types of legislation originate in the Commission. There is the regulation that applies directly, and it may be said that that is all we need in this motion because we never get a chance to debate it; we can debate only the penalties that we put on it. Then there is the directive which has to be embodied in our legislation, whether it is in primary or delegated legislation. It may be said that that is not important because the House is bound to debate it at some stage as a statutory instrument or as a clause in a Bill. But that is not so, because there is the power that is used, not frequently but frequently enough, to bring a directive into operation by administrative action.
795 For example, with regard to approval of types of motor vehicles and motor vehicle parts, the Department claims that it can bring decisions into operation purely by administrative action without the House ever hearing about it. At present, if a Minister thought that agreement was urgent he could agree and then announce his agreement in a written answer. It is then enforced by administrative action and the House will never have an opportunity of considering the proposal for that legislation in any form, or the result of the Minister's agreement. I should like an assurance that what is meant by European legislation is everything that is or would be put before the European Legislation Committee. At least that Committee has a definition of it which would cover the sort of proposals that I have explained.
There are more important points in the recommendations of the Procedure Committee and perhaps more important points in the motions on the Order Paper, but I return to my first "love"—the delegated legislation. It is the duty of the House to take in hand the growing scandal of the lack of control that we in this House have over the Executive when it is legislating for the citizen.
§ 8.5 pm
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
I should like to add my congratulations to the many that have been showered upon the Leader of the House. He has brought the Procedure Committee recommendations before the House and he has endeavoured to implement most, if not all, of them. I welcome the setting up of the Procedure Committee because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett), who has made a deep study of the matter, pointed out, there is something radically wrong with our procedures for approving enormous sums of expenditure. For over a century there has been a Contingencies Fund. which should not be confused with the contingencies reserve. At one time we spent money on floods, tempests, and so on. During the last few years 2 per cent. of all Supply expenditure on a rolling basis goes to that fund—over £1 billion—which can be spent without any approval by Parliament. It was used to set up BNOC. The money then has to be replenished after the event from 796 the Supply expenditure. It has been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee, and by the Expenditure Committee, which take an interest in such matters. I hope that the new Procedure Committee will also take an interest in it.
I chaired a Sub-Committee of the Procedure Committee of which my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and others were members. We discussed simultaneously the Standing Orders relating to statutory instruments and to European legislation. Although they are distinctly different, there are similarities in the procedure and in the remedies. I am glad that the European Community proposals are included on the Order Paper basically in the form in which we suggested. I realise that there are certain modifications, which I shall not go into at this hour. If the Leader of the House really wants to allow 20 Members to add to the burden of work on the Floor of the House, I do not mind. We did not propose that. We suggested that those matters should be discussed in Committee. But I warn the Leader of the House that, now that the European Community procedure has been sorted out in this way, if 20 Members do so rise, particularly if they are 20 PPSs prompted by Ministers who do not want the matter discussed, he would not get away with the previous excuse that there was too big a log-jam and that it would be too much of a burden. If instruments are prevented from being discussed in Committee, the Government will have to find time to discuss them on the Floor of the House. He did not have to put it back. We did not suggest it. But now that the Government themselves have done it, they will find that they may have created a rod for their own backs.
Although we dealt with statutory instruments and European orders at the same time, the statutory instruments are completely left out. That is strange. Upon investigation, I understand that perhaps it is not so much the right hon. Gentleman's desire to leave them out but, rather, that the business managers of the House have some worries about the procedure. We said that a new standing order should be created. In fact, that is set out in the amendment in the names 797 of members of all four parties represented on the Procedure Committee. We also said that:any Member should be able to take part in the deliberations of a committee, and should be able to move motions or amendments",though not vote. What is wrong with that? The Whips may find difficulty in staffing boring Standing Committees, but why should they wish to prevent those who are interested from coming along and saying their piece?
Our second recommendation related to the 20 or more Members rising in their places. That was intended to help the Government by not burdening the Floor of the House. Our third recommendation was that a Committee should in future consider a proper motionthat the Committee recommend that the instrument be approved",instead of the silly "have considered" motion which has hitherto been discussed in the debate. We slightly lengthened the time of the Committee, but that is the sort of thing which the right hon. Gentleman could have changed. We said that.if a committee recommend the approval of instrument, the subsequent motion in the House should, as at present, be put forth-with, but at the commencement of public business".The only change there relates to where in the day's business this should be placed. These represent quite small amendments that were not designed to burden the Government or to distort the procedure of the House in an anti-Government way.
I have added my name to amendment (a) to motion No. 1 in the terms of the proposal of the Procedure Committee. I do not agree with every word of it. I did not agree that it should not be possible to initiate the procedure on a Friday. If hon. Members choose not to come on a Friday, I believe that that is their problem and not something that we should legislate for. There are other small points. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to take this away and discuss it again with the business managers of the House, the point being that we on the Procedure Committee did not automatically assume that everything we proposed should be approved by the House by way of a text that was identical to what we suggested. We imagined that the Government might wish to make changes and that the House itself might wish to do so. But it seems to me that the Leader 798 of the House is abrogating his responsibilities if we are not to do anything about our existing statutory instrument procedure.
The right hon. Gentleman's powers and responsibilities are far greater than he perhaps thinks. He said earlier that he was in favour of pre-legislation Committees. I do not think that a "Committee", in the singular, has ever been a practicable matter, for the simple reason that there is too much legislation for one Committee to deal with. However, if the right hon. Gentleman wants to have pre-legislation committees, all that he has to do is to persuade one of his departmental colleagues, or perhaps himself, in his capacity as Minister for the Arts, to send the instructions to the draftsmen to one of the existing Select Committees before they go to the draftsmen, so that the Select Committee can consider the details of legislation before it is drafted. That would be extremely simple. One would not need a resolution of the House. The Select Committees already exist, and I am sure that most of them would he willing to consider such instructions if they were offered. It is governmental secrecy and reservations which caused this not to happen. There is now a structure which would enable pre-legislation matters to be considered if the Government so wished.
Two quite small recommendations, (47) and (48), were proposed by the Procedure Committee. One is down on the Order Paper for discussion tomorrow and I shall not deal with it now. The other simply permits the proceedings of Sub-Committees to be published. We recommended that they should be published. At present, if a Member wishes to write a minority report, he has to wait until the report drafted by a Sub-Committee reaches the main Committee, and discuss it all over again in order to make sure that his minority report or amendment appears in the printed text of the proceedings. That is a waste of time. I totally fail to understand why such an innocuous little proposal, which no one on the Procedure Committee thought controversial, should not appear.
I come finally to the issue of the Special Standing Committees. Our Standing Committees are most peculiar bodies. They were created by accident. On page 63 of the first Procedure report hon. Members 799 will find a detailed history of our procedure. The extraordinary thing is that before the latter half of the 19th century we had a procedure whereby Bills which were not dealt with on the Floor of the House were dealt with in Select Committees. Almost every legislature on earth has copied that practice. Therefore, our Standing Committees, which are a modern invention, are unique to this legislature and to a few of the more recent Commonwealth legislatures. However, in America, Europe and everywhere else, legislation is considered by what we would call Select Committees, It is not considered by mini Houses of Commons such as Standing Committees represent.
I shall not go into the details of all this, but it is true to say that originally Standing Committees were also intended to be Select Committees of the sort that our specialist departmentally related Select Committees are. As a compromise, Standing Committees were, until 1948, given all the powers of Select Committees. They always had the power to call witnesses until 1948, although they never exercised it, basically for the strange historic reason that Bonar Law did not want them to. Therefore, the House of Commons never really intended to arrive at the boring and useless Standing Committee procedure that it now has.
§ Mr. English
My hon. Friend will be replying to the debate. No doubt most Front Bench spokesmen will take the view that Standing Committees are incredibly useful devices. They are perhaps useful in keeping Back Benchers quiet, but they certainly waste a great deal of time compared with Select Committees.
While the Leader of the House is undertaking this experiment with regard to the Special Standing Committees, I had hoped that he would also have undertaken an experiment using existing procedure. It is already possible to refer Bills to Select Committees for their Committee stage. In fact, that is regularly done every three or five years in respect of our Army Act revision. I strongly recommend that, as well as experimenting with three Bills under this proposed new procedure, the Leader of the House runs a concurrent 800 experiment with another three Bills in Select Committees, so that in a couple of years' time we could see which procedure worked better. If the right hon. Gentleman does not do that, we shall unfortunately be unable to test the experiment properly. As the scientists put it, it will not be a controlled experiment.
Almost every hon. Member has criticised the proposed procedure in motion 3. Unlike the departmentally related Select Committees, this was not unanimous in the Procedure Committee. I believe that all the critics are right, basically because we could deal with legislation in Select Committees much better and more effectively. They already have the power to call witnesses and they are masters of their own procedure. They cannot be filibustered out of existence because, if they want to, they can curtail the debate. As long as the Government do not lose their majority, they can deal with the matter effectively.
The procedure in motion 3 is an undesirable compromise. I do not propose to fight it to the bitter end. I think that an experiment should be tried, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will try the experiment of Select Committees.
One of the points made by the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) is certainly valid—that the content of our legislation is atrocious. Books have been written on this subject. Our drafting methods are far behind those used in some other countries where clear legislation can be produced setting out the rules and the principles of whatever is the subject of the legislation.
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right—as he so often is—in saying that something should be done about pre-legislation. I suggested to him a method of doing it without involving changes in the procedure of the House. I hope that he will let us at some time have a dialogue between a Committee and a Department on what legislation it would like, before the heavy hand controlled by the Victorian precedents of some of our draftsmen is laid upon the ideas of Ministers.
§ Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stevenage)
It is with some diffidence, as a new Member of 15 months standing, that I seek to intervene in a debate on the procedure of this House. I do so not 801 from a profound knowledge of the procedures of this House, as the length of my stay would indicate, but with a profound concern for the way in which this House has been conducting its business in relation to what we call Supply.
One of the primary functions of this House—-what the ordinary taxpayer and the ordinary elector outside expect us to do—is at least to control the amount of money supplied to the Government, and therefore the amount of taxation imposed upon the ordinary citizen of this country only by this House.
When we examine in any detail the way in which we do this, it is quite clear that this House has long since given up any serious attempt to fulfil what I regard as one of our primary duties. By not insisting upon that control we have endangered this very important democratic parliamentary institution, and because it does not do its duty properly and because its debates on this subject are not properly informed, what happens is that the public's esteem of this House is thus reduced.
It is with great diffidence, therefore, that I say how much I appreciate the work that has gone on in this House on the procedure, particularly in relation to the control of Supply. I should like to join the chorus of congratulation to the Leader of the House on setting up the Procedure Committee on Supply. It is incredibly important not just from the constitutional point of view that I have just mentioned but because it affects the the way in which the whole of the Government machinery and our nationalised industries work.
All Members of this House will know that we vote the money to the Government for one year only. This results in incredible distortion and a great deal of waste of public money because of the rigidities which the Treasury in turn imposes upon the budgets and upon the expenditure of Government Departments and nationalised industries. It produces some absurd results which, unless we begin to change the procedure of this House, the Treasury cannot avoid. Therefore, of course, we have to consider a way in which we can carry over money voted in one year to another. I hope that the Committee will consider that matter. But it should not lead to 802 a diminution in the control over expenditure of any of the bodies involved.
I am, quite frankly, shocked by the lack of financial control which is displayed by the many documents which come before this House in relation to the Government's expenditure. They would not be tolerated, I suggest, in any other forum. The figures cannot be related one to the other. We cannot take the Budget and say "This is what the Department intends to spend and this is what it intends to spend it on" and compare it with what is actually spent. There is no way of doing that, as far as I can determine.
At the end of the Session there is introduced a Bill called the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill to make up for all those expenditures which were at first not estimated. We know that by tradition we pass the Bill without even a cursory examination, yet it contains a major part of the total Government expenditure of the year. This is, of course. the way in which the Civil Service and the Executive get round any kind of control that we might have in this House over the finances and the supply of money to the Government. This is an utter sham and a really disgraceful way in which to run the nation's affairs.
It is therefore marvellous that we have got to the position where it seems that there is now a coincidence of interest between the Executive and the House. in that both see that an incoming Government has been unable to control the Civil Service expenditure. It should now join with this House in asking the House to take back its power—which everybody in this country expects it to have and to exercise—and to begin to control the expenditure within this House, with the help and co-operation of the Ministers and the civil servants involved. That must be the high objective of setting up the new Committee, and I sincerely hope that it will result in a procedure of which we can be proud and which will enable us to do our duty.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
It is a little ironic that a debate on procedure covers such a wide range of topics, with no commonality and no coherence. One of the great strengths of the procedure of the House is that 803 we proceed by motion. question, debate and decision, each a separate process, and usually on one question at a time. For convenience, we often group matters together, and the Chair will allow debate notionally on the first question when there are other matters arising on the other questions, but it does so only when it is a matter of coherence and commonality of topic. That is not true of the topics before us tonight. There are 34 recommendations and 10 separate motions, to which there are eight amendments. The previous debate was largely about setting up specialist Select Committees.
I am not suggesting that the procedure that we are adopting is wrong, but sometimes a balance is required when we depart from the fundamental procedure of taking one question at a time. I am sorry that the Leader of the House is not here. He will probably be remembered for these procedural innovations. I do not know what the Government will be remembered for. That remains to be seen. However, the right hon. Gentleman's leadership of the House will be remembered as a result of the innovations introduced in the previous procedure debate, and in this debate. There is a major gap in relation to statutory instruments, which the right hon. Member for Crosby (Sir G. Page) has already mentioned. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) has reminded us of that gap by tabling amendment (a). It represents a notable exception, because the existing procedure on statutory instruments is indefensible. It does not require improvement—it is indefensible.
Parliamentary democracy is under a certain amount of strain. It is often placed under such strain because some of the procedures in this House appear as irrelevant and archaic to those outside the House. I can often convince them, after some explanation, that they are neither irrelevant nor archaic. However, if I am ever challenged on the question of statutory instruments I shall have no defence. I shall tell them, as I shall tell the Leader of the House, that, as we have no proper procedures, there will probably be some action. That action may involve taking a leaf out of the book of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South 804 and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), who is an expert in such affairs. That action will show that Back Benchers, both old and new, will not put up with the procedure on statutory instruments being left as it is.
If the position remains as it is, the public can rightly ask, "If you cannot deal with statutory instruments, what can you deal with? The House will be open to a wide attack. As time is pressing, I shall not go into depth on the sad procedural history of the past 20 years and the decline of statutory instrument procedure.
I read a textbook written by Sir Ivor Jennings. In the 1930s he remarked in this House that an hon. Member had once threatened to put down a prayer and that that had resulted in the Government's business managers removing the instrument from the Order Paper. Report No. 538 of the Procedure Committee, dated 1970–71, states:Your Committee accordingly recommend that non-contentious Prayers and non-contentious affirmative resolutions should be referred to a special standing committee.One must note the word "non-contentious." That is how the door was opened. Once debate has taken place upstairs there is no proper procedure for dealing with the subject on the Floor of the House. The motion moved upstairs is irrelevant. The motion in this Chamber is automatically exempted. Perhaps the House will do something about that tonight.
Motion 7 deals with Standing Order No. 73A, which will be modified as a result of the comprehensive new procedure in relation to the EEC. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and I have tabled amendment (a) to the motion. It is a simple amendment. It would oblige all votes on statutory instruments which have been discussed upstairs to be dealt with at the commencement of public business. At present, we all know that, irrespective of the stupid "consider" motion upstairs, a statutory instrument is presented for the approval of the House. Because it is automatically exempted, it is put at the end of the Order Paper, possibly after discursive and uncontentious business. It is considered immediately prior to the Adjournment debate.
805 I could prove that such events were not the intention of the Committee that made the recommendation. Tonight, the House can remedy the situation by making it necessary for motions taken after consideration upstairs to be taken at the commencement of public business. I am sorry that the Leader of the House is not present, because he might have wanted to intervene on that point. It seems a relatively easy way for the House to tighten up on these defective procedures.
I turn now to the motions relating to EEC procedure. My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) has already dealt with the three amendments selected to motion 5. I shall not go over that ground, except to emphasise to both Front Benches that there has been a virtually universal request that amendment (d) relating to an oral statement by a Minister should be accepted. It is clear that the loophole that has been given to Ministers to take decisions and to report them to the House at the earliest possible moment has been abused. Often it has not been at the earliest possible moment. It has sometimes been two or three weeks before the appearance of a written answer to the effect that approval has been given to a motion in Brussels before debate in the House. I put it to the Leader of the House that the mere fact that this procedure has been abused suggests that he should accept the amendment without equivocation.
I hope that the Leader of the House will also accept amendment (b) about the motion being related to the proposal. It is no use the House having a debate on the Adjournment about a matter in Brussels. It has been said that so far we have managed to stop that practice, but we have already had a few such debates. Standing Orders make it possible for any Government to do that, and the previous Labour Government were responsible for putting matters down on the Adjournment. Along with the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee, I suggest that that loophole should be stopped. If we are to have a debate, let it be on documents which can be amended so that the House of Commons can come to a definable view. If it is purely on the Adjournment, the Minister can go to Brussels and make what he will of the debate.
806 Motion 4, which concerns the new procedure relating to Community documents, has, I think, received universal approval by the House because no one has criticised it. That motion has been recommended by the Procedure Committee. I understand why the Government have been unable to accept all the recommendations. We wanted the Committee upstairs to be able to sit on a second day. The Government have not put that in. There may be good reasons for that. On the whole, these would be great improvements, because they would not only allow the Committee upstairs to debate a matter on an amendable motion, but such an amendment could come from any member of the Committee.
Again, there is a loophole in this new Standing Order. It is the same as that which exists in Standing Order No. 73A on statutory instruments; that is, that the substantive decision of the House is automatically exempted and can be taken at any hour. That is why my right hon. and hon. Friends and I have tabled amendment (a), line 24, after "House", insert:on a day other than a Friday either at the commencement of public business or on the interruption of business at Ten o'clock".That again was the recommendation of the Procedure Committee. The Procedure Committee recommended that that be one of the conditions. I hope that that gives the Government a choice: forthwith either at 3.30 pm—we already get many motions at 3.30 pm—or at 10 o'clock, when there may be a vote on another matter, or immediately afterwards when there would be no additional difficulties regarding time. If the amendment is not accepted, there will be grave disquiet about the fact that EEC business, if it goes to Committee, is finally approved by the House late at night, and we would be criticised by the people outside.
I turn to the last motion, which concerns EEC business, No. 10. It proposes to amend Standing Order No. 3 which relates to automatic exemption of certain categories of business. We know that EEC business is often taken at 10 pm. It is automatically exempted—there need be no business motion down—and we get one and a half hours. It is one and a half hours purely because when the order was first devised people thought that these EEC motions were the same 807 as domestic statutory instruments. At one time they were called "secondary". We have got rid of that; but the one and a half hours remains, under the 1953 rule relating to domestic statutory instruments.
I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will recall, as will many hon. Members present, the many rows in this Chamber about having to debate in one and a half hours sometimes very complex documents. We may get them on the Floor yet if they do not go to Committee. However, my hon. Friends and I have suggested that when we get them on the Floor, one and a half hours will be rather constricting, and we are suggesting an amendment to Standing Order No. 3 to permit EEC documents to be debated for up to two hours before the Question is automatically put. That would allow another five Back Benchers to make five-minute speeches and would allow winding-up speeches to be just that bit longer. It is only half an hour more. It is not asking for a great deal. It would be a considerable improvement, perhaps enabling matters to be thrashed out just a little more to give the Minister going to Brussels a better indication of the feeling of the House and to allow matters to be clarified when they are now sometimes rushed.
I hope, therefore, that the Leader of the House will agree to amendment (a) to motion 10.
Amendment (b) to motion 10 is of a rather different character. This is where, for the first time, perhaps, I do not entirely take the same view as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman), who is Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee. This motion concerns two matters relating to the category of documents. Some of the documents that we have had before the Scrutiny Committee have originated not from the Commission, and I believe that that is right. If matters which come from the EEC might be or are legislative, the Scrutiny Committee has to spread its net wide and we have to have a look at them. That is perfectly right. However, exempting that business on the Floor of the House is a different matter.
The new Standing Orders are to include documents of the EEC other than of the Commission, and to include documents going to "the European Council."
808 It is quite right that the Scrutiny Committee should have terms of reference which include those documents, but whether we should exempt from the 10 o'clock rule documents of that sort on the Floor of the House is another matter.
What is this European Council? The Standing Order, as amended, would readto the Council of Ministers or the European Council.That is the effect of motion 10. The European Council does not exist in the Treaty of Rome. It is a slang term for the Heads of Government meeting. That meeting started as a gleam in the eye of President Pompidou, and as an informal gathering. But according to the report of the three wise men it is a candidate for a super Council of Ministers. If we read that report, we shall find that there are moves afoot to create a super Council of Ministers, which although perhaps being a Heads of Government meeting will, in the twinkling of an eye, turn itself into a legal Council of Ministers under the treaty and agree what is in effect legislation. I agree that such documents going to such a council must be considered by the Scrutiny Committee and that its terms of reference should be wide enough to encompass such documents. However, I doubt very much whether we should exempt the documents when we come to debate them on the Floor of the House. The Council has no legislative prerogative under the Treaty of Rome or any other treaty. It is an entirely unofficial body, yet we know that in practice it is gathering to itself legislative power.
The Leader of the House may say that he wants to consider these matters further, that there may be a valid argument but that he wants to line up the Scrutiny Committee with the House. He may say that, but the House had better watch out or else the European Council, so called, will take more power from it.
Unless we consider the minutiae and practicalities of our procedures, people outside who do not believe that parliamentary democracy can work will pick at our procedures and show where we have fallen down. In that event, we shall be, quite rightly, targets of criticism. I hope that the Leader of the House and other colleagues will take note of that and that the improving amendments will be passed.
§ Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)
I take up briefly the remarks of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Sir G. Page) on recommendation (3), Special Standing Committees. I fail to understand what we shall achieve by implementing the recommendation. Legislation that comes before the House is often a delicate balance of compromise agreed between interested parties during the consultative processes that all Governments go through. Many points are accepted and the Government are trusted because those who are involved in the negotiations and in the legislation know that at the end of the day the Government will get the agreed compromise through because the Government usually get their business.
What shall we achieve over and above the circulation of the consultative documents, the Green Papers and finally the White Papers that accompany most legislation by having this rather odd breed of Special Standing Committee? Everyone who has been receiving the consultative documents will feel that it is his right to attend or to write to the chairman to say that he has to give evidence to the Special Standing Committee. Organisations that have been involved in the negotiations on legislation will feel left out if they have not made the final gesture of wanting to appear to give evidence to the Committee.
What will be the Minister's position when the various bodies appear before the Committee? Will he be able to ask questions? If the House decides as one of the experiments to send a Private Member's Bill to the Special Standing Committee, what will be the position of the Sponsor? Surely he should be allowed to ask questions of those who wish to give evidence to the Committee.
When the proper processes of consultation are available to the Government prior to bringing forward legislation, I do not think that there is a need for a Special Standing Committee. However, a limited case can be made out for the use of the procedure in so far as it may affect Private Members' Bills. Private Members who wish to sponsor and produce a Bill do not have consultation facilities. They do not have the facilities for getting all the interested parties together. Although I do not sup- 810 port the recommendation for the Government's legislation, I believe that there may be a case for its limited use for Private Members' legislation.
If we pass this motion—and I shall certainly vote against it—we shall add another legislative process to the hurdles which a Bill must already surmount. A large number of organisations outside Parliament use parlaimentary activity and the chance to influence Parliament as a way of justifying the subscriptions from their members. I dread to think of the annual reports of some of these fringe organisations outside Parliament, listing the number of Special Standing Committees to which they have made representations.
The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) congratulated the Leader of the House on the setting up of specialist departmentally related Committees. I am very proud of the fact that I voted against them. They have added enormously to the expenses of the House of Commons in the past year. They are a particularly expensive item, and yet we heard the hon. Member for Norwich, South actually asking that they should be given more staff.
I hope that whatever meeting the Leader of the House may have attended this morning, he accepted some very strict cash limits for House of Commons expenditure. In looking at the expenditure and expenses of the House of Commons for which he is responsible, what estimate has he made of the increase in expenditure which would be brought about by the setting of the Special Standing Committees?
I believe that in all these debates on procedure the House has an obligation to look carefully at the way in which parliamentary expenditure is getting out of hand. Consider, for example, the expense of parliamentary questions and the abuse of the Order Paper that we see every day. Hon. Members put down questions, the answers to which can generally be obtained from the Library. We should look very carefully at the waste of public money that is now incurred by a large number of our parliamentary activities. I hope that when he winds up my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will give us an estimate of 811 the increase in expenditure which goes with many of these resolutions.
Mr. Frank Hooky (Sheffield, Heeley)
Some time during the summer the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster assured me that we would have another debate on procedure and I am very grateful for the fact that he has honoured that assurance. Despite the difficulties that occurred in August and again this week, he has given the House an opportunity to debate this extremely important matter of procedure and to come to a conclusion in the form of clear and definite resolutions on many important matters.
I was rather startled by the suggestion earlier in the debate by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) that Select Committees should conduct their proceedings in private. Of course they have the power to do so and often they deliberate in private but I would have thought that it was completely contrary to the idea of enchancing the power of parliamentary investigation that these Committees should not deliberate in public. Part of the object of their exercise is not merely to inform the House but to contribute to the general public debate on the matter that they are currently discussing.
I wish to speak primarily about items 2 and 3 on the question of Special Standing Committees and Supply. I believe that the suggestion for special Standing Committees is a good one. It is a valuable experiment and I hope that the House will adopt it. One of the curiosities of our way of dealing with legislation in Committee is that we call these bodies "Standing Committees" when they are nothing of the sort. Select Committees can be regarded in a sense as Standing Committees because they are appointed for the whole parliamentary Session, but Standing Committees are nothing of the kind. They are simply ad hoc groups of Members thrown together, sometimes because the individual Members have a special interest in the matter under discussion and sometimes because Members are brought in to make up the numbers. But they are not in any sense Standing Committees coming together to discuss a particular area of public business over a period of years and months.
812 Consequently such Committees are starting from scratch. They have no common knowledge or experience, except by accident, of the matter under discussion. They are starting afresh with a complicated and often unintelligible document. I am appalled by my experience on the Finance Committee. We purport to pass legislation in which it is impossible for an average, intelligent person to understand the purport of substantial paragraphs, and yet that legislation will determine our lives and behaviour. An ad hoc group is put together to consider a complicated document. Its members usually have no previous experience of working together. They are often expected to deal with a complex subject about which many of them have no knowledge.
Forming a quasi-Select Committee at least for a short will give right hon. and lion. Members the opportunity to gain a better grasp of the issues. Although the Bill will have been discussed on Second Reading, that is no substitute for serious discussion in Committee. The proposal has a great deal to commend it.
It has been suggested that, as we possess a system of departmental Select Committees, the predigestion of legislation could be dealt with there. There are two objections to that. First, Select Committees already have a heavy responsibility. This additional requirement would overburden them. Secondly, and more importantly, the point of the exercise is that the same group of hon. Members who will scrutinise the Bill, clause by clause and sentence by sentence, should together first have the opportunity of a general study of the issues, exchanging views with the Minister present, so that they can form a better idea of the general drift of the Bill and the problems that may be thrown up in discussing its provisions.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
The hon. Gentleman appears to be suggesting that Select Committees should be responsible for scrutinising Bills coming from this Chamber. If implemented, would not that suggestion prevent them from pursuing their primary function of scrutinising the workings of specific Departments?
Mr. Hooley: That is what I was saying. Those who suggest that Select Committees should take over that role are overlooking the fact that they already have wide-ranging responsibilities. If they took on 813 that additional duty, they would be overburdened.
Before a Committee of 20 hon. Members settles down to deal with the wording of a Bill it would be helpful for them to have discussions among themselves and to take evidence. The Leader of the House is saying, in effect, that the experiment should run for only six months. He referred to a Session, but we know that the experiment will not start much before January and will run until about July. That is a very short period. The right hon. Gentleman has also said that the experiment will be confined to about three Bills. That would be a serious limitation on our ability to assess the value of the exercise.
The Leader of the House suggested that the Bills concerned should not be controversial. I should have thought that there might be a case for choosing a Bill—say the nationality Bill—that was highly controversial and would benefit from the fact that the members of the Committee had been given an opportunity to take specialist advice, call witnesses and find snags, difficulties or consequences arising out of the Bill that might not be immediately obvious.
Bills can be highly controversial without being controversial in the party political sense. There are plenty of controversial matters that cut across party lines and there could be a case for including in the experiment at least one Bill on a matter of acute public, if not party, controversy.
I accept that there must be a time limit on the scrutiny process. We could not allow a Committee to sit for six months before studying the text of a Bill, but I am not sure why its work should be confined to four sittings. It would be reasonable for us to say that a Committee must not take more than 21 days, but can sit as often as it wishes during that time. The Leader of the House is suggesting that not only should the Committees be restricted to a 28-day period, which is fair, but that they should be able to sit only four times during that period. The Committees might find it more convenient to sit five or six times and I do not see why they should not have that slightly greater freedom within the 28 days.
The right hon. Member for Down, South was agitated by the provisions in paragraph (4) of motion 3. I find them 814 a little curious. Paragraph (4) (a) is reasonable in providing that a quasi Report stage should be held to consider amendments arising from undertakings given by Ministers during the sittings of the Committee. That would save a good deal of time on the Floor of the House. However, I do not understand paragraph (4) (b) which refers to amendments that:are consequent upon previous decisions of the committee".The only way that a Committee can make decisions is to approve, reject or amend the clauses of the Bill. I am not clear how it can go back on such decisions at a quasi Report stage. The Committee will already have expressed its opinion on those issues.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
The answer to the hon. Gentleman's conundrum is that these would be what we normally term consequential amendments, which become necessary because of previous amendments that have been inserted.
§ Mr. Hooley
I should have thought that if amendments were drafted properly, consequential amendments would have been incorporated in the original drafting.
I am not sure what is meant by the reference in paragraph (4)(c) to amendments that:have been shown to be necessary during the committee's proceedings.If amendments were necessary during the Committee proceedings, that fact would presumably have been expressed in amendments that the Committee would have debated and decided on. If the amendments are merely consequential, perhaps the word "consequential" should have been included in the motion. I find that proposition curious, although it is an interesting variation on our existing procedures. The suggestion of a system of general scrutiny of the Bill before the actual text is considered is attractive and useful. I hope that the House will adopt it.
I shall not say anything about the European Community legislation. That has been adequately dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I shall fully support the amendments to which my name is attached. If they are not acceptable to the Government, I shall vote for them.
815 I want to make some remarks about the question of Supply. I agree with many hon. Members who have spoken in the debate that this is a fundamental and basic weakness of the procedures of the House. We do not control expenditure. We do not control the Government's demands for expenditure nor do we scrutinise it effectively. The Government under Mr. Attlee from 1945 to 1951 was rightly famous for a great many things and will go down in history as a great Government. However, one of the matters for which it was notorious was the fact that it was able to manufacture an atomic bomb without the House of Commons being given any clue that the matter was under way and, presumably, having nothing to say about the appropriation of the necessary funds for carrying out this policy.
Defence in general and nuclear weapons in particular are becoming a matter of nation-wide controversy. I have no intention of going into that controversy except to say that it will turn, in the end, to a considerable extent, on the financial capacity of the nation to pay for the manufacture and installation and so forth of these weapons.
It would be absurd if the House of Commons was unable, through its existing procedures, not merely to debate the general policy issues of defence and nuclear weapons, which, obviously, it can, but to deal with the more detailed appropriation of the enormous sums—£5 billion for one weapon and £5 billion for another—involved in these defence decisions. This is more important because when we look back we know very well that weapons like Blue Streak and TSR2 were not eventually abandoned on some high grounds of policy but primarily because the Government of the day decided that they could not afford them.
I believe that the House could reach decisions on some of these weapon systems after considering whether it is reasonable that taxes that our constituents pay should be expended on his form of weaponry or whether equal sums should not be expended on some different type of equipment that may be regarded as necessary to the defence of the country.
The setting up of this Committee to study the whole question of Supply, control of expenditure and appropriations, is 816 extremely important. I hope that it will get on with its business although I would not suggest the rush, proposed by the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins), who wanted a report within six months. That would be undesirable. One would certainly expect something to emerge in 12 or 18 months. It is a complicated matter and one of fundamental importance.
I echo the protest of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South about the inclusion of the European Council as a body in motion 10 of the proposed Standing Orders. The European Council has no constitutional standing in the Treaty of Rome. We should not take cognisance of it in terms of our Standing Orders and our business arrangements. We might have to debate the subjects that it discusses from time to time but we should not purport to acknowledge its existence in this fashion.
I admire the Chancellor of the Duchy's persistence in these procedural matters. He did a fine job on the special departmental Select Committees. He has done a good job again in pursuing the matter and bringing forward many more procedural matters which the House should debate and upon which it should make decisions.
§ Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
I have only a limited number of comments which I want to make on the wide spectrum of matters before us today. The first refers to the substantive amendment to the first procedural motion. Here, slipped into a long amendment covering two and a half pages and side-titledInstruments subject to the affirmative procedureis paragraph (8) which is not to do with instruments but with Church of England matters.
These are matters of a distinctly different kind. It would have been more fortunate if attention had been drawn to this, first on the Notice Paper and then on the Order Paper, by a side heading pointing out that the instruments subject to the affirmative procedure are really terminated with paragraph (7) and that paragraph (8) deals with something entirely different.
With great respect to the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), 817 in whose name this worthy amendment stands, the arguments for using the same procedure for a Church of England matter are entirely different from the arguments for using this projected procedure for statutory instruments, whether of the affirmative or negative resolution kind.
Hon. Members who have been present regularly at debates in the House on Church of England matters will know as a fact that generally the same hon. Members are not members of the Statutory Instruments Committee. This I give not as an opinion but as an ascertainable fact. Anybody who cares to read through Hansard debates on Church of England matters and to compare them with reports of the Statutory Instruments Committee, will find that those hon. Members who wish to participate and vote on Church of England matters do not correspond with the membership of the relevant Committee.
Unfortunately, under paragraph (8) of the very long, and I think admirable, amendment to my right hon. Friend's first procedural motion, the decision whether to send a measure to a Statutory Instruments Committee will be taken by the House forthwith without debate. I should have been much happier if the chair had been able to agree to have a separate vote on paragraph (8) of this proposed new standing order—because it is of a completely different genre from the half of the amendment which precedes it and the half which comes after it—instead of having to take two different types of legislative functions and treating them as if they were the same.
May I remark in parenthesis that a few years ago I wrote to the then very distinguished Clerk of the House, Sir Richard Barlas, and asked him whether in his opinion the proceedings of the Ecclesiastical Committee were proceedings in Parliament. He wrote back to me giving me his considered opinion that they were not but added that the distinguished Counsel to Mr. Speaker, Sir Robert Speed, took the opposite view, that they were proceedings in Parliament.
I may be misreporting both of them. It may have been that Sir Richard took the view that they were, and Sir Robert took the view that they were not. I should not wish to be guilty of misattribution. My point is that there was a disagreement 818 between an extremely distinguished Clerk of the House and an extremely distinguished Counsel to Mr. Speaker as to whether the proceedings on Church of England measures in the Ecclesiastical Committee—to which the House has always attached great weight when they come on to the Floor—were proceedings in Parliament. Hon. Members will realise that there are implications for privilege and the law of defamation that are relevant to that.
§ Mr. Paul Dean
I have been following my hon. Friend's arguments with great interest. Will he help us by saying whether the views that he had from certain distinguished people were before the new Church of England synodical government arrangements? I think that that is relevant to his argument and might help to guide the House.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
I wish that I could answer that question with certainty, but I cannot. It was three or four years ago. I doubt that the new arrangements have altered the status because they are still based on the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919. My guess is that the status is not affected by the new arrangements for the constitution of the Church Assembly. I was referring not to the Church Assembly but to the Ecclesiastical Committee.
I turn to the new and rather quaintly named special Standing Committees. There is one potential conundrum that I wish to put to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, namely: can a member of the Committee give evidence to the Committee? Apparently, the Committee would contain a Minister in the same way as normal Standing Committees. Yet many of the questions to which the Committee will want answers presumably would appropriately come from the Minister in charge of the Bill. I apologise for being absent for one and a half hours from the debate, because the point may have been raised already.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
It is not a question of being in the report. We have a motion, and the question is what would be the implication of that motion on this specific point.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
My hon. Friend clearly wants an ex cathedra statement, and I shall give it to him when I reply.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. When we read the Select Committee report and the very scholarly contribution by the last Clerk of the House on the History of the right to question Members, we discover that the apparently ex cathedra statement in "Erskine May" that Select Committees cannot require Members to attend and give evidence is not well based. It is typical of some of the statements that appear in "Erskine May" to which a spurious authority is attributed.
A member of the Committee can be invited by the Committee to give evidence if he is already a member of the Committee. But if he is not a member of the Committee I cannot help but note that this resolution does not empower the Committee, as it could have done, to send for Members. The established tradition is that the power to send for persons and papers does not entitle a Committee to send for a Member of either House. Returning to my conundrum, if the Member that a Committee wishes to summon is already a member of the Committee, can it require him to give evidence? I think that that conundrum needs sorting out.
§ Mr. Kenneth Baker
Does my hon. Friend recollect that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in any Government is a member of the Public Accounts Committee? He can sit as a full Member of the Select Committee both to inquire into evidence before the Committee and to give evidence to it. On occasion he fulfils both roles. When he gives evidence the other members can question him. Therefore, what is proposed is by no means novel. There is well-established practice for it already in the PAC.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
I am most grateful for that advice. I think it would be better, however, if, when we are drawing up the new Standing Order for the so-called Special Standing Committee we should explicitly give it the power to send for Members of this House if we intend that it should have that power rather than that it should rely on anecdotal similarities to the Public Accounts Committee. Let us, in so far as we can, in drawing up new Standing Orders make 820 explicit those things that need to be explicit rather than making them implicit and subject to disagreement and misunderstanding.
This might mean, if my right hon. Friend agrees with me, that as well as telling us that Ministers and any other Member of this House can be summoned by such a Committee to give evidence, he might feel on a subsequent day—obviously am amendment could not be put forward at this stage—that we should amend the Standing Order on a procedural motion to make the power absolutely explicit.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
The House has once again today enjoyed a sort of love-in with the Leader of the House on this second tranche of procedural reform initiated by the Procedure Committee. I join in the congratulations that have been extended to him by others for having this second bite at the cherry. When we have finished this second bite we shall have dealt with motions in which the right hon. Gentleman has already sown the seeds of the third major bite. I know that we have done a few other things in between. The seeds of the third main tranche are being sown by the setting up of a new Procedure Committee to deal with the question of Supply.
Apart from the detailed procedural matters that have formed the main part of the discussions today, references have been made by several hon. Members—notably by the hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean)—to the relationship between the attitudes of Members—their willingness to vote a certain way—and procedural habits. He suggested that it was the function of the Government to take decisions and the function of the House of Commons to scrutinise those decisions. That is infinitely too modest a way of putting it for my liking. The function of the House of Commons is to receive proposals from the Government, to consider those proposals, and, where the House disagrees with them, to substitute its own judgment for that of the Government. That should apply to legislation, to expenditure matters and to all other matters that come before the House.
§ Mr. Paul Dean
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what I am suggesting may 821 be modest but that it might be rather better than what we have achieved in practice over the past 10 or 20 years?
§ Mr. Cunningham
Yes, I made the remark I did because I think that the hon. Gentleman and also the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) were, in some of their remarks, looking for procedural solutions to problems which are not procedural in nature.
Where Members wish to exercise power against the Government they have their weapon—the vote. It is the only thing that the electorate gives them—the power to vote in this House—and the only thing that they need. Procedural changes are important, but they are essentially secondary. It is important that Members should exercise their judgment and be prepared to permit their vote to follow that judgment. Over the last decade there has been a significant change in the habits of the House in that respect, and it is always the party in power that has to exercise that responsibility particularly. Many Labour Members have been, and will be, looking with great care to Conservative Back Benchers during this Parliament to see whether they are prepared to carry on the traditions that have been established, first by the Conservatives in the beginning of the 1970s and then by the Labour Back Benchers during 1974–79.
I regard the most important proposal as that on the new Special Standing Committees, and I shall deal with it last. With regard to the EEC document changes that are proposed, there has been intense dissatisfaction for a long time with the method in which EEC documents are considered in this House. Basically it has been felt that the merits should be debated and then motions passed relating explicitly to the merits. Motions should be amendable, and enough time should be available for a proper discussion of these matters with time available on the Floor of the House, if necessary, to follow them up. I have no doubt that any hon. Members feel that the proposals before use do not go far enough in achieving those objectives, but they go much further than the present position and they should be strongly welcomed.
I turn now to the proposal on the declaratory resolution about the behaviour of Ministers in the Council of Ministers in the Community before any debate 822 has taken place in this House. Again, there is much back history on the matter which has been rehearsed today. The wish of the House is clear. Except in extremely rare conditions, if then, no Minister should commit himself in the Council of Ministers until a matter that has been recommended by the Scrutiny Committee to be debated has been debated on the Floor of the House.
We can all envisage circumstances in which there is a need for a loophole. But if that loophole were to be used frequently it would be highly undesirable. A loophole that perhaps has to be used every two or three years may be bearable if the reasons are adequate. But any escape from this provision more frequent than that would be extremely undesirable.
I now turn to the proposals about statutory instruments which are not before us—at least not in the name of the Government. The right hon. Member for Crosby (Sir G. Page), with all his experience of statutory instruments, said how unsatisfactory he believes the present arrangements for scrutiny are. The House may like to consider that the arrangements for keeping an eye on subordinate legislation that does not even take the form of a statutory instrument are even worse. Frequently we permit a Minister to make a scheme of arrangement in a Bill or to issue directions which do not need to be discussed again by the House in any form, and the text of which is impossible to find in any series of documents. Subordinate legislation of that kind is looked after worst by the House.
With regard to the statutory instruments, it is perhaps a pity, certainly in the eyes of many hon. Members, that the recommendation of the Procedure Committee that the procedure now recommended for EEC documents should be applied more or less as that for statutory instruments. I believe, and other hon. Members believe, that the Leader of the House would have been willing to adopt the recommendations of the Procedure Committee on this matter and that others were unwilling to do so. If the House tonight exercises its judgment and decides to adopt the proposals contained in the Procedure Committee report, I do not think that any great disaster will occur, whether for the 823 House or for the running of the Government's business in the House.
As I said, the Leader of the House has sown the seeds of another important advance in the running of the affairs of the House by tabling the motion to set up a new Procedure Committee to deal exclusively with the matter of Supply. There is great dissatisfaction in the House—there has been for a long time, but it has been expressed more in the last year or two—over the fact that we vote millions, nay billions. of pounds on the nod. However, the scrutiny of that expenditure which does not take place on the Floor of the House does not take place in Committee upstairs either. Supply Days are rightly used for a purpose which does not now much relate to Supply. The Expenditure Committee, when it existed, did not do very much of a job on the scrutiny of proposals for expenditure. I am hopeful that the new Select Committees will not only produce studies on individual subjects but will also rigorously scrutinise the activities of Government Departments and the expenditure implied in those activities.
If they are to do so, they will probably have to run on twin tracks, spending one day a week doing their general studies and another day addressing themselves to expenditure control. I very much hope that members of the new family of Select Committees will try to do both jobs. If the new Select Committees do not do the expenditure job, we shall have to recreate something like the old Expenditure Committee, with all the disadvantages which that arrangement had. I share the groans expressed at that possibility, but someone must do the detailed work on the Estimates, and preferably it is up to the new Select Committees to do it. If they do not, we shall have to have a different method of doing so.
§ Mr. English
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, one of our problems is not even related to the Procedure Committee. At present, work is going on to try to make the Estimates comprehensible in the manner referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett). That is necessary, because I do not think that any hon. Member, even professionally qualified accountants, actually understands the Estimates that are put before the House.
§ Mr. Cunningham
I agree with that, and no doubt the new Committee will address itself to that matter. In the meantime, during the two years that the new Committee will be producing its report, it is important that the new family of Select Committees address themselves to this question.
Another point raised was whether, in addition to this new Committee, we need a normal Sessional Procedure Committee. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) recommended that we should do so. My own preference is that we should permit the new Committee also to take care of small procedural matters that arise from time to time. At Question Time, hon. Members frequently raise some grouse or other, and it will be said—sometimes from the Chair—that this is a matter which should be looked at by the Procedure Committee. If we have a Procedure Committee, even one that is engaged on a long-term and important study, I think that it is able to squeeze in. in the occasional days—without interrupting its general work—consideration of minor matters. Whether by that device or by the creation of a separate Procedure Committee, we need to have some means of clearing away these occasional procedural problems that arise so that we do not get a whole backlog of matters that need looking at, as we have sometimes done in the past.
I turn to what the report calls the Public Bill Committee procedure. I entirely agree with those who have said that the proposal we made for a second run in Standing Committees, to take care of undertakings given by Ministers and to take care of consequential amendments previously adopted, is an experiment that does not only apply—and should not be made only to apply—to the new Special Standing Committees. The Government are only suggesting that the new Special Standing Committees should deal with only a handful of Bills, so they are not a sufficient base for a proper experiment on this other devise. In the Procedure Committee report, we did not at all suggest that this second run-over should apply only to the new kind of Standing Committee. We suggested that it should apply to Public Bill Committees, as we called them, and to other Standing Committees.
825 We come, finally, to the most important recommendation before us, namely, that for the Special Standing Committees. This is, I think, the second tranche of what will be looked back upon as the reforms of this House of the years 1979–80. I do not share the misgivings which many Members have expressed about this new system. I take a particular interest in it.
I remember putting forward this idea to the then normal Procedure Committee in 1971, when it fell like a pebble in a tar barrel and was never heard of again. When we were first taking evidence in the Procedure Committee in 1976, I put the idea to the witnesses who came before us and was amazed to find that it was looked upon very favourably, and the bandwagon for this ran. Now, to my great surprise, we have the proposal before us, and there has been a very favourable response to the idea. [Interruption.] I say that there has been a very favourable response. I do not say that everyone is in favour of it.
We all know the difficulties of the present Standing Committee procedure. I do not share the criticisms of the Standing Committee as an instrument which have been expressed by some Members. I think that the Standing Committee combines the formality of proposing precise amendments, of an argument for and against, with the enormous advantage of being able to make more than one speech on the question. It combines that with the slightly greater willingness of Members to address themselves to the issue, and to stay in the debate long enough to hear the issue debated, which characterises Standing Committee as against the Floor of the House. That is the good thing about Standing Committees.
The bad thing we have all experienced. It is that in that room there is an electrical force, which is the hunger for information of the members of the Committee. In the corner of the room there is another electrical force, the Whitehall officials, with I will not say all the information but an awful lot of information. Between these two forces there is the narrow filament of the Minister's mind, and that inevitably results in a fuse. What we are suggesting is that there should be some direct communication between those two corners, as it were, of the room.
826 May I remind Members that we also recommended—my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooky) should remember this—that the new Special Standing Committees—and, indeed, I think we said all Committees—should include among their members for any Bill on a certain subject one or two members of the Select Committee covering that subject area. That does not do as much as my hon. Friend is asking for in referring legislation to Select Committees, but we were trying to make some bridge between the continuity and expertise which should exist in the subject Committees and the retention of ad hoc Committees for the consideration of Bills.
This will, I think, be a new and valuable facility for Members to use or abuse—and no doubt by some Members and on some Bills it will be abused. But the procedure is valuable in itself and we must just trust that Members will use it properly rather than abuse it. As some have said, it will be a channel for organisations outside the House to present their views to the House. It will be experimental, and if it is to be a successful and meaningful experiment, sufficient Bills and a sufficient variety of Bills must be referred to the system. It can then be properly tested.
I hope that the Leader of the House will say something more about the chairmanship of the new Standing Committees. I am not sure that his earlier answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) was clear. Are we to understand that the Chairman will be, as the Committee recommended, a neutral chairman, who has been drawn from the panel of chairmen? Are we to understand that this same person—subject to illness and so on—will chair the evidence-taking sessions, and clause by clause consideration of the Bill?
The hon. Member for Grantham complained that we were being far too restrictive in limiting to three sittings the number of days that the Committee could devote to the taking of evidence. In my mind as a member of the Procedure Committee, and in the minds of many others, the governing principle was that we should spread the thin end of a lot of wedges about the place. This is the thin end of the second wedge. We all know this House. If you feed too much into its mouth, it will spit it out. We wanted 827 to get the thing adopted and so we have put it before the House in a modest way. Once it has been accepted we shall never get rid of it. That is one of the principles that caused us to restrict the number of sittings.
The proposals will form an extremely valuable addition to the armoury of hon. Members if they use them properly. Once again, I congratulate the Leader of the House on bringing forward proposals that will be unpopular with some of his colleagues, and with some of mine.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I thank the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) for his most generous tribute and for his courage in making that tribute in the presence of his colleagues. At least I have disposed of mine. I am grateful for the various tributes that right hon. and hon. Members have paid. I understand that there was one dissentient voice, but I was out of the Chamber and I did not hear it. There is always a dissentient voice. There was even a dissentient voice at the Conservative Party conference. It is part of the cast.
I turn to some of the technical points that have been raised and that are all important. There are many motions and amendments, and I shall have to deal with them as briefly as possible. I am glad to have the opportunity of expanding on what I said to the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) about the chairmanship of the Committee. It is intended that there should be two Chairmen. The first Chairman of the Committee, when it is sitting as a Select Committee, will be appointed by Mr. Speaker. It will be possible to appoint any hon. Member, apart from a Minister. I imagine that, normally, the Chairman of the Committee that is sitting in Select Committee form will come either from the Chairmen's Panel, or from among the Select Committee Chairmen. It will be possible to appoint any hon. Member. The important distinction is that that Chairman at that stage will be different from the Chairman of the Standing Committee at that stage.
That suggestion came from the Chairmen's Panel, which was naturally concerned that the impartiality of the Chair- 828 man of the Standing Committee should be protected. The Chairman of the Committee in its Select Committee form would carry out more of an inquisitorial than a balancing role. That was the reason why that was put forward. It can be argued that it is not necessary, but that is the factual situation and the reasoning behind it.
The right hon. Member for Leeds, South asked what constituted a controversial Bill and wanted a criterion. I cannot give him such a criterion. What is meant is not that the Bill should be completely anodyne, but that it should not be controversial in the party political sense. If it is the subject of cross-party warfare, it will not be suitable at any rate, for this experimental stage. That would not rule out a controversial Bill. For example, the nationality Bill may prove controversial in certain aspects, but it would be controversial within the parties rather than across the Floor of the House. I cannot give a further definition than that. It is the old problem of being able to recognise an elephant when one sees it but not being able to define it.
The right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) tabled a number of amendments, most of which have been selected, and I should deal with them. I turn first to motion No. 4, amendment (a), in line 24, after "House", inserton a day other than a Friday either at the commencement of public business or on the interruption of business at Ten o'clock".The purpose of the changes that we have proposed to the Standing Orders has been to improve scrutiny in the Standing Committee by giving more time and taking debates on motions which can be amended by any Member, not only an appointed Member of the Committee. The amendment would not aid such scrutiny, and I see no reason to depart from the established procedure at this stage.
Turning to motion No. 5, amendment (a) was not selected, so I need not answer that point. The effect of amendment (b) would be that all debates on Community documents would have to take place on the basis of a "take note" motion and motions for the Adjournment could not be used.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
Very well. I cannot recommend acceptance of that amendment, which goes further than the Procedure Committee recommendation that debates should normally take place on a substantive motion. it is our practice for debates on Community documents to take place on expanded "take note" motions which are amendable. All documents which are given further consideration by the House are debated on the basis of such a motion, except possibly where the Scrutiny Committee suggests that a document might be listed as relevant to a general debate.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I really cannot give way. I have many points to get through. But I should be happy to correspond with the right hon. Gentleman on further points.
Amendment (c) to motion No. 5, proposed by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North and others, would bind the Government to an unrealistic commitment. Wherever possible the House should have the opportunity to debate a document recommended to it by the Scrutiny Committee. But, of course, no Government can foresee sudden events which in the national interest require instant decision. Such occasions should, however, be rare. I do not see that there is any danger of that being abused. Therefore, I recommend that that amendment, too, be rejected.
I take the same attitude to amendment (d) to motion 5.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
Yes, I was. I have been in the House throughout except for three-quarters of an hour, when I went out for—I shall not go into that. In that very brief absence, a very full note was taken of what was said.
I note the wish expressed in the proposed amendment by the Members who have supported it. The occasions when oral statements are required are very rare. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes. But when such occasions occur, oral statements are generally made. I believe that the amendment is unnecessarily restrictive.
830 With regard to the different circumstances from the circumstances envisiged by this amendment, I have made it clear to the various Ministers concerned that in general one would wish statements to be made orally. But I cannot force Ministers to do so. [HON. MEMBERS: "The House can."] The House can do so. Good. The House, then, must force the Minister. I do my best, but in the end I can only try to persuade Ministers. If the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who has quite a vigourous character, cannot get a Minister here when a Minister should be here, I shall be very surprised.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I am not averse to that. I think that it is the Scottish verdict of not proven. I do not think that the case for compulsion has yet been established. Clearly, if Ministers will not co-operate with the House, the House has its remedies. Ultimately, the House always enforces its will. But I have yet to see this case made out. Meanwhile, fait compulsion, we can rely on the activities of the hon. Member for Newham, South.
The right hon. Member for Down, South raised a number of important points. He was anxious about the role that the Select Committees are playing. I do not have control over them and their terms of reference. They decide what to do, whether they investigate individual items—which was suggested by another hon. Member to be undesirable—or whether they look at the whole scope of a Department. In a literal sense, they are Frankenstein monsters and have a life of their own. They cannot be controlled in that sense by me. But we must see how they develop.
The right hon. Member for Down, South made his second point when referring to recommendation (10) of the Procedure Committee, to the effect that a similar procedure to that for Scotland should be applied to Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
The right hon. Gentleman must let me finish. Recommendation (10) states:The proposals of the Committee on the Preparation of Legislation relating to an expedited procedure for bills to re-enact for Scotland only the provisions of United Kingdom Acts should be implemented; a similar procedure should be applied in respect of Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
Thank you. I am afraid that I cannot be very helpful towards the right hon. Gentleman on that subject. We still have the matter under review, but in the Government's judgment the case for a new procedure has not so far been established. I am aware of the two Committees.
Perhaps I may deal with the point about the extra Sessional Committee. I have noted that point and I shall consider it carefully. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman and disagree with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury about extending the terms of reference of the Committee. I want the Committee to concentrate on vital work and not to be distracted by other matters. My remarks about the additional Sessional Committee apply to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker).
I find it difficult to answer the arguments of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on a theoretical level. I refer the hon. Gentleman to my opening remarks about delegated legislation. We must not impose too much work on hon. Members. If it were merely an exercise in abstraction, I do not think that his argument could be answered, or the argument that has been adduced by other hon. Members.
I take it that the first three matters raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman) support what I said about the amendments of the right hon. Member for Battersea, North. I shall consider the fourth point further but I cannot accede to it.
The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) spoke about single issues and the general work of a Department. Again, that is a matter for the Select Committees. I confirm, for my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Sir G. Page), that the term "European legis- 832 lation" contained in motion 5 covers all European Community instruments with legislative effect, whether direct or indirect.
My reply to the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) is the same as my reply to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. I have sympathy with the principle which lies behind his amendment, but for practical reasons I cannot accept it. However, if the House decides that it should be accepted, that will be a matter for the House. If that happens, we shall do what we can to implement the amendment.
We shall be debating recommendation (47) tomorrow. I put the item on the Order Paper specially to placate the hon. Member for Nottingham, West. I hope that it will be possible for us to dispose of recommendations (47) and (48) tomorrow with the usually happily given co-operation of the hon. Gentleman. Recommendation (48) seeks to compel Select Committees to publish proceedings in sub-committees. I do not think that we should take the power to compel them to do so. I understand that they have the power already. There may be arguments about that. That is an issue that we can consider again if it transpires that they do not have that power.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) for his kind remarks. We have three Sessions because that is precisely the recommendation of the Procedure Committee. In fact, there are four Sessions, the first Session being formal. There are three effective Sessions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) asked about a breakdown of costs. We do not have such a breakdown. A general answer is that we get good value for money in the general running of Parliament. We keep a constant check on expenditure. It is much cheaper to run the House of Commons than to run most Government Departments. We are keeping a close eye on any additional expense.
I turn to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop). I shall not follow him into the purlieus of the Church of England, but I can give him a reply. He asked whether a member of the Committee could give evidence to a Committee.
833 The answer is "Yes", but the Committee canot compel him to do so. That is an ex cathedra statement or an ex scatola statement as it is backed up by official advice.
§ May I conclude——
§ It being Ten o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker proceeded, pursuant to order this day, to put forthwith the Question on the motion relating to Procedure (No. 1)
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ That this House takes note of recommendations (4) to (30) and (66) to (70) of the First Report of the Select Committee on Procedure in Session 1977–78.
§ MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER then proceeded pursuant to order this day, to put forthwith the Questions necessary to dispose of the remaining motions relating to procedure, and the motions relating to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of 834 Bills), Special Standing Committees, Standing Committee on European Community Documents, European Community Legislation, Procedure (Supply). Standing Order No. 73A (Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.), Standing Order No. 62 (Nomination of Standing Committees), Standing Order No. 60 (Constitution of Standing Committees), and Standing Order No. 3 (Exempted Business).