HC Deb 15 February 1982 vol 18 cc106-18


That, at this day's sitting, the Motion in the name of the Prime Minister for the Adjournment of the House may be proceeded with, though opposed, until Eleven o'clock.—[Mr. David Hunt.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. David Hunt.]

Mr. Morris

In conclusion, I wish to make three points about the generality of paragraph 99. First, I hope that the allocation of specific days as Opposition days will not rule out the possibility of the exchange of Estimates days for Opposition time. I make that point only because the Opposition would not wish to be in a position where the Government were determining the days on which specific issues were to be debated. Therefore, I hope that we retain the flexibility to exchange Opposition days for Estimates days.

Secondly, opposed private business time should not come out of the parliamentary time envisaged to he allocated as Opposition time. Thirdly, the use of the 19 days should remain with the official Opposition. That principle should be accepted by the House. However, I accept the plea that was made by the hon. Member for Farnworth that the House should decide that issue. I hope that the Leader of the House will provide the opportunity for it to arrive at a considered view.

I was encouraged that, in presenting the report of the Committee to the House, the Leader of the House, with his usual and characteristic fair-mindedness, said that he and the Government were prepared to listen to what was said during this debate. I hope that he will listen carefully to the contributions that have been made on many different aspects of the Procedure (Supply) Committee's report from both sides of the House.

10.2 pm

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

I wish to cover a limited number of points that have come up in the debate. I understand the reason for the sense of grievance that some of the splinter parties have about the allocation of Opposition days, although I confess that it is easier to see the justice of their complaint than to apply the use of a strictly arithmetical method to overcome the problem.

The difficulties appear to be obvious. There is no exact number of half days that can represent the nine divisions into which the minor parties are gathered. Any attempt to combine them officially for allocation of half days would be much resented. For example, if it were proposed to put Welsh Nationalists in with Scottish Nationalists, both might resent that. The implication of that logic would be that Irish parties should be lumped together, which would be the first cohesion successfully imposed upon them or any aspect of Northern Irish history for some time.

I have given some thought to the matter since the Committee of which I was a member came to its conclusion. There is one possible solution. If the total number of Opposition parties—or minor parties, because some of them sometimes sit on one side of the House and sometimes on the other—were added together, they would have in total the proportion of Opposition time that their total strength bears to that of the official Opposition. If they drew lots for half days of their time, having as many lots as they have Members, their chance of winning a half day would be proportional to their strength. It would not be guaranteed, because the laws of chance do not work in a restricted series. However, that is one way in which one could avoid grouping together parties that might resent such groupings. It would introduce an element of mathematical relationship to their opportunity for securing what used to be called Supply time.

Once we divorce the new concept of Opposition time from the old concept of Supply, we no longer have the same constraints—for instance, that there should be no fewer than six Supply days before this or that happens—because there is no longer any relation to voting Supply. We could, for instance, have one Opposition day every X weekdays, taking the entire Session and dividing it proportionately. That would have the advantage of making the occurrence of such days predictable, which would be convenient to Members who wanted to do a certain amount of preparatory work before the day on which a given subject came up.

If we are to substitute the concept of the Opposition day or half day, as I hope we will, for the concept of the Supply day in the new pattern, do not let us accidentally constrain ourselves to the old and now, I hope, discarded myth that when the Opposition choose their subject that has something to do with the voting of Supply when one has just escaped from that.

One subject on which a little more needs to be said is the availability of specialist advice to Select Committees. It is easy to unload more and more work on to Select Committees, to such an extent that they do not have the capacity to discharge that work. That is a solution to an apparent problem that can become unduly onerous. I believe that we should start by asking what is the maximum workload that can reasonably be imposed on a Select Committee. We should then work back to ask what are the functions that are compatible with that workload, rather than start with an admirable list of functions that one would like to discharge on other shoulders than one's own, imagining that in doing so one has found a solution to the problem, which has previously eluded the House.

The amount of work that a Committee can get through, bearing in mind that its members are also Back Benchers, in the House will depend to some extent on the degree to which it has temporary as well as permanent specialist advisers. The job of the Member should be not the accounting donkey work, but discussion of what has been pinpointed from a morass of figures and trends by advisers to the Committee as worthy of its consideration.

That, of course, does not preclude individual Members from noticing anything in the Estimates and drawing it to the attention of their colleagues. I like to think that I was probably the first to notice, buried in the Estimates, the continuing heavy expenditure on Concorde, which resulted in a Select Committee investigation when the other members of the Committee decided that it was a profitable focus for their time. Having specialist advisers to sort out the rough weeds from the chaff does not preclude or usurp the function of Members. What it does do is to avoid much unproductive work which one need not be a Member of Parliament to do.

I am extremely conscious of the workload which this procedure can impose on the Clerk's Department. We have multiplied our Committees, each of which has to be staffed by the Clerk's Department. Some Committees have power to appoint Sub-Committees or Joint Sub-Committees, each of which has to be staffed by the Clerk's Department. Again, this can impose on the Clerk's Department a burden which can result only in a deterioration of the quality of service given to the House's Committees and Sub-Committees.

It would be invidious to give examples, but some of us have witnessed significant variations in quality in the clerking of different Select Committees in the House. The more Sub-Committees we have, the more likely it is that the Clerk of the Committee will be removed from that Committee partway through an important inquiry for reasons that have nothing to do with the efficient discharge of the Committee's duties, but because of moves that are necessary within the Clerk's Department for the general career structure and experience of the Clerks concerned.

These are matters that we must bear in mind in considering the efficacy of the means by which Members of Parliament served by the Clerks of the House can discharge the new duties that we impose on them. Just as we should consider the total workload that a Select Committee can carry and use that as the outer constraint on the duties that we impose on it, so we need to consider the total workload that we can impose on the Clerk's Department without the service that is given to Committees and Sub-Committees deteriorating. To that extent, we need to consider whether all the functions currently carried out by the Clerk's Department in Committees need the particular skills and aptitudes that constitute the full-time, regular, lifetime service of Clerks of the House, as opposed to the specialist skills that can be made available on a temporary basis from outside the House.

The continuity of Committees is important. Committees find that it is not just a matter of the paper qualifications that appear on a curriculum vitae; it is also the personality of the individuals with whom the Committee finds that it can work usefully. It is something that only experience shows. It does not necessarily reflect adversely on an individual if, for reasons of personality, he or she may not be able to provide exactly what the Committee is looking for, or vice versa. It will also depend on the personalities of the members of the Committee. To that extent a continuum of both members and terms of reference enable a Committee to discharge its duties to the House more efficaciously.

Also, at least some members of the Committee have a memory of what it has done and of evidence given before it perhaps as much as 10, 12 or even 15 years earlier. To take an example, when one looks at the immense sums being spent, for instance, in support of British Leyland, one has almost a feeling of déjsà vu. The first rescue operation was undertaken in the 1960s. It is not only the form of the Committee that is important, but also its manning.

That brings me to my concluding point. I am particularly grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St.-John Stevas) for his response to the clear wishes of the House at the beginning of this Parliament. He agreed on behalf of the Government that the manning of departmental Select Committees should be done by the Committee of Selection and not through the usual channels. That was a historically important decision. I put on record my gratitude to my right hon. Friend. It was deplorable that an attempt was made in some quarters to bypass that clear decision of the House and to pack the Committees. There was delay in setting up the departmental Committees because of that problem.

Bearing that reality very much in mind, the Procedure Committee, in considering the matters that are the subject of the report, was wise to discipline itself not to recommend for the departmental Committees the power to amend Supply resolutions and enactments. I do not believe that the system could have withstood the pressure to pack the Committees in such a way that the Government, of whichever political complexion, got a majority for their financial measures. In so doing we should have undone the historic decision that the Committee of Selection should recommend the manning of Select Committees in such a way that there is an effective degree of independence of their members. At the end of the day, whatever we do about form and Standing Orders, it is upon the integrity and industry of the hon. Members who man the Committees that the service that they perform for the House will depend.

10.18 pm
Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

In some respects the debate is about the priorities of our work in the House. The House must be responsible for legislation. No other body can be. We also have the duty to attempt to control the Executive, although we do that with little effectiveness these days. We also have to vote Supply.

I am moderately surprised that a high-ranking member of the Conservative Party such as the Lord President should regard the control of public expenditure as of relatively lesser importance. The right hon. Gentleman wants only three, and not eight, days devoted to its control. I regard that as an inadequate response to the Committee's recommendations for the following reasons. First, we are discussing a gigantically complex set of expenditure proposals to a total value of about £56 billion, plus or minus the odd billion. Even that figure, of course, is not the totality of public expenditure but is the Supply money. The House has allowed that figure completely to escape from its control and the Committee wishes to bring it back under at least some form of control through the recommendations.

There are 18 classes of main and three sets of supplementary Estimates with a vast array of subheads—large and small sums—huge amounts of money, single Votes running into billions and other Votes of perhaps £2 million or £3 million. It is not feasible to say that the House will return to exercising any sort of control if we are to be given three days; I am not sure if those three days represent the residue of what is left after statements, questions and goodness knows what else, starting at about half-past five and knocking off at about ten o'clock.

Three days will not do for this process, first, because of the complexity, range and size of the sums involved and, secondly, because of the Committee's intention—at least as I construe it, and I believe that the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) confirmed this—to use those days to vote on specific estimates. They will not be used just to take note that the DHSS intends to spend £9 million or to vote that a couple of million be knocked off the supplementary benefit but that certain precise proposals should be put down on the Order Paper, debated and voted on in respect of specific Estimates.

Voting is as important, in a sense, as the consideration on the Floor of the House because, of course, there are two issues. First, there is scrutiny and, secondly, control. The House can control anything in only one way—by the vote. At the end of the day, the only way in which the Government can be called to account on any policy or expenditure issue is when hon. Members go to the Lobbies and say "Aye" or "No"—"yes, we are prepared to let it go" or "no, we are not".

Such votes are, of course, massed by the present Government majority. There are occasions on which the Government majority is so large that the vote's effectiveness is not as apparent as it might be. However, even in those circumstances, situations can arise when the size of the vote's majority can be crucial. If there is to be any control over these vast sums of money, it is essential that specific motions on specific votes be put to the House and that Members divide in the Lobbies and say that they approve, disapprove or wish to reduce them.

Incidentally, I take the strong view that there should also be the power to propose increases. I know the hallowed tradition exists that the Crown must initiate expenditure. As with many such traditions, it is more hollow than hallowed. At least the power to suggest increases in certain Votes ought to exist, although I have no doubt that the Government of the day will marshal their forces and vote them down.

It is not good enough for the Lord President to say that it is a splendid report which he has a great deal of sympathy with. I do not call his good faith into question when saying that. However, it just will not do for him to say to the House that three days are enough. If we are taking the report seriously, the proposition that there must be eight full days of parliamentary time devoted to this business must be accepted much further than the Leader of the House has been prepared to say so far.

I wonder what happened to all the days that the House of Commons and the Government gained when most of the Finance Bill was sent upstairs. I seem to recall that when I first came to this place, not terribly long ago, hon. Members spent day after day and night after night during the summer slogging through all the nuts and bolts of the Finance Bill in Committee of the whole House. By a long overdue and sensible reform, most of the Bill was sent upstairs. What happened to all those days I do not know. The Government or someone got them. There must, however, be a few days knocking about that could be used for the eight days that have been proposed. The matter should be investigated.

Although, in my view, eight days will not be sufficient, such an allocation is a good beginning towards implementing what the Committee suggests. I do not agree with the Leader of the House, on the issue of the Business Committee, that the Liaison Committee would be appropriate. It was not set up for that kind of work. We are talking about business of the whole House. The Liaison Committee was not set up to deal with the business of the House. It co-ordinates, as its name implies, some of the nuts and bolts of the work of the Select Committees on the allocation of money and the maintenance of contact. It is not concerned with the business of the House.

I do not object to the suggestion made by the Leader of the House. But the Liaison Committee is not what hon. Members had in mind. What is required is a Business Committee such as I believe operates through the usual channels when there is discussion about guillotines. We want an effective Business Committee to allocate time in the eight days.

The issue before the House is not only control but scrutiny. On the whole, the Committee then came to the view that the existing Select Committees could perform a valuable scrutiny job on the Estimates. One needs, however, to recast the form of the Estimates, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) has forcibly argued. A sweeping reform is needed. No doubt the Committee will eventually take up the matter.

There is also some force in the argument of the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) that a detailed, far reaching scrutiny of the Estimates may impose a heavier load than the Select Committees can carry. Although the Select Committees are an immediate instrument, already to hand, for scrutinising the Estimates, it is possible that there will be need to organise something more effective.

There is also some force in the argument of the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) that the Committee's work should be deeper and more serious and that it should have the power to amend Estimates. The weakness of the argument is that the House never delegates powers to Committees. At some point, whatever a Committee does, the issue has to come back to the House. I am inclined towards the view that the Committee, as a whole, took. While the Select Committee should scrutinise the Estimates and make recommendations over what hon. Members thought was wrong or what they considered should be increased, the formal business of taking decisions must fall upon the House. That is why we need eight days and why three days are not enough.

I should like to comment on the moans and groans of the minority of the Opposition parties about their Supply days. I do not know why the Liberal Party is complaining. Its 12 Members constitute one-twenty-fifth of the total Opposition. I do not know why that should entitle them to one out of 19 Supply days. Mathematically, that is not right and I see no case for it. If we ever reach a time when there are large numbers of legitimately elected minority party Members on the Opposition Benches, we may have to consider the matter further. Under the present arrangements, the Liberals certainly have no cause for complaint.

I share to some extent the view of the right hon. Member for Taunton that this is not a radical reform. It is a move in the right direction which could provide the House with the beginning of a much more effective exercise of power over public expenditure. Brought into effect and carried through correctly, it could be an important first move in that direction. To that extent, I very much support the recommendations of the report, and I certainly do not accept that they should be whittled down in the fashion suggested by the Leader of the House.

10.31 pm
Mr. Peter Thomas (Hendon, South)

We have had a fairly long and very good debate which is nearing its conclusion. I shall therefore not delay the House long. I have risen to speak mainly because it gives me the opportunity to associate myself with the warm and genuine tributes paid to my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) for his chairmanship of the Select Committee, of which I was privileged to be a member. He was indeed an excellent Chairman. He had the advantage, or disadvantage—I am not sure which—of having in the Committee a formidable collection of people of great ability, great individuality and in some respects of stern and fixed opinions, and they were all exceedingly eloquent—occasionally at the same time. My right hon. Friend kept order in a remarkable way and we are indeed indebted to him for the way in which he conducted himself in the Chair throughout the many long sittings of the Committee.

As my contribution to the report was minimal, I may say with complete modesty that I regard it as an extremely effective and good report, which certainly deserves the general support that I believe it will receive.

I make just a few brief observations. First, I gathered from one or two of the speeches today that the impression has been given that this House is deeply concerned about the scrutiny and control over Government expenditure currently provided for in our procedures. There is no doubt that one or two very active Members of the House are very discontented, but it should not be thought that that discontent is widespread. It must be understood that, if the House had wished to scrutinise and control Government expenditure through Supply over the years, it would have done so, because the opportunity to do so has existed for many years. There are 29 Supply days which could, if the House so wished, be used for the scrutiny, and to some extent the control, of Supply. It has been the wish of the House over the years, however, that those Supply days should be used for an entirely different purpose—for general debates of a political nature. That is the wish of the House; and it has been the wish of successive Oppositions.

The report should not be regarded as modest. Its recommendations are radical. If they are put into effect—as I hope that they will be—considerable changes will be made. One of the reasons why I was worried about there being too many Estimate days was that I did not wish a change to take pine which would be exposed as being ineffective. I believed that if we had too many Estimate days the risk at the beginning would be that such days would not be fully used. I believed that on some days general debates would take place and we would return to the system which has prevailed for some time. That was why I believed that six days was enough. In the light of experience we could then decide whether to advance.

Three days is not enough. Initially I thought in terms of four days. A term of between four and eight days is probably right to begin with. I hope that the Government will consider the proposals to be an advance which merits their support. I hope that the House will understand what it means and endeavour to make it work.

As has been said so admirably, the House has never acquired the style and scrutiny of going into Estimates as other legislatures do. Only time will tell whether the House can acquire that style.

Select Committees will be taking on something new requiring great application. If it works, there is no doubt that there will be a departure from what has been the procedure for many years. There will be a new and effective scrutiny and control over Supply.

10.38 pm
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I agree with the closing remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Thomas). The scrutiny procedure depends upon the attendance and homework of hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) and I were in a Select Committee today from 4 pm to 7 pm, and we have been present for most of this debate. If there is a weak link in the chain, in will be in the considerable extra work required of Members on the Select Committees. We shall have to prepare for debates that might take place on proposed Estimates days.

I congratulate the Select Committee on its work. I was a member of the former Select Committee that dealt with the earlier batches of changes in procedure. I know the amount of work involved in preparing a report such as this. I commend it in particular for the excellent table which sets out how the Consolidated Fund works over the year. It is the first time that I have seen it, and it illuminates a great mystery. We can benefit from it.

As the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) said, we are really discussing the constitution of the United Kingdom. In that respect our Standing Orders are part of the not so unwritten constitution. Indeed, that not so unwritten constitution is found in many different places, such as the Treaty of Rome and our Standing Orders. Grievances aired before Supply and Adjournment were one method by which the House gained its power. The Standing Orders show how we can use that time. If the proposals are adopted in amendments introduced by the Lord President, changes will have to be made to the Standing Orders. Time is all-important. We want time to debate motions. The mover of the motions and the timing of tabling are also important.

I emphasise a point that has already been made. Opposition Supply time—whether 19 days in practice or 29 days in theory—should still be linked to Supply. That is an important constitutional principle. As Standing Orders state, that must be done within certain limits. Whether the time is used, as it often is, for a debate on a broad subject and the Supply is done formally at the conclusion, or afterwards, is not of prime importance. The important point is the link. Like a motion on the Adjournment, it is for the House to choose what is done with the time. However, if the link is broken, we shall lose a link in the constitution.

Estimates days will rely heavily on the scrutiny spadework undertaken by the Select Committees. The raising and spending of money is the prime responsibility of the Crown. It is Parliament's role to scrutinise, sanction or refuse the raising of taxes or the spending of money on an item. Rightly, hon. Members wish to revitalise the powers of the House. The Estimates day procedure is good, but what is to happen has already been the subject of exchanges. There are no explicit recommendations in the report. We had an ingenious suggestion from the Clerk. I am glad to know that he still exists. He suggested that each literal Vote should be taken by a motion and vote in the House. That would be the logical answer, but it cannot, for practical reasons, be done.

Perhaps the proposed Estimates Committee could select the Votes. I agree that the Liaison Committee should not do that, because that exists for a linked but separate purpose. It could be done at the Opposition's wish or by rota by the Select Committees involved in the Estimates. I do not know exactly how it would work. Whether the debates should last three or eight days, the principle is right.

Unless Select Committees scrutinise thoroughly, the debates that we all agree should take place will not do the job required. As my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley said, there will probably be a specific vote on an issue and the background will have been prepared by the relevant Select Committee. Whether there is a debate will not be a test of a Select Committee's report. There is clearly a push-back effect on the administration. Any Minister or civil servant who knows that he may have to appear before a Select Committee to justify expenditure or policy may well think twice before adopting any line of action. That gives the Select Committee a spot check power, regardless of whether it is used and whether the report is debated in the House.

Nevertheless, there is always that threat. There is correspondence from the Clerk to the permanent secretary of the Department concerned. Of course, we can put down an informed question. So the quality of the work of the Select Committee can be enhanced if used properly.

There is also a need for greater scrutiny of the quality of the expenditure and of what my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) has constantly reminded the House—the value-for-money element. I do not support the Government's view that this is necessarily an audit function. The local government auditor or the Comptroller and Auditor General is surely concerned with appropriation and misappropriation, as indeed is the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Whether we are getting value for money is a different sort of judgment. It may be partly political and partly administrative. I am not sure whether it is wholly covered by the accountant's traditional skills. I give two examples to the House in relation to public expenditure where I am not sure that anybody has yet installed machinery to enable us to come to value-for-money conclusions.

Some time ago I was concerned about the use of public transport. I tried to find out from the Civil Service how much was spent respectively on rail warrants and on road allowances for civil servants' motor cars. I could not find out. I was told that it would be too costly to do the extensive computing required. My answer, which I drew to the attention of the Committee then concerned, was that if it was not calculated it ought to have been. That is the sort of value-for-money equation that we ought to have.

Another item of current interest is aid for computers. There is an interesting article in The Times today, which tells of the original grant made after a visit of a civil servant to a small laboratory in Manchester, where those concerned had produced the first computer in the late 1940s. A letter was received a few days later saying they were going to get so many thousand pounds for research. At the moment, the Government, through the Department of Industry, are involved in a scheme to aid information technology. Is that on a specific Vote? Under what head is it, and is it realistic? Indeed, is such a programme necessary if these machines are as efficient and money-saving as we are told? Those are two small examples of how even the Votes may not give us the tools that are necessary for the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Heeley wants to have.

Going back to the Adjournment itself, recommendation (7)(d) of the Select Committee's report suggests that the motion for the Sessional Adjournment be kept to one and a half hours only and not be open-ended. This would be a retrograde step. Whilst the motion for the Adjournment is a succession of short speeches by hon. Members on matters of short-term legitimate grievance, it sometimes coincides with a matter of national or international importance on which the reputation or efficiency of the Government is at stake. On those occasions it would be a pity if, as with statutory instruments, we found ourselves limited to an arbitrary one and a half hours, irrespective of the issues of the day.

I should have thought that in those circumstances—I am sure that as a House of Commons man the Lord President would agree with this, certainly if he were sitting on this side of the House—it should be incumbent upon the Government to move the closure when they thought it necessary. The Chair would accept the motion if it considered it appropriate and the Government would have to find the necessary votes to close the debate. It is usual now to have this before the Consolidated Fund Bill. So long as there is no time penalty, that is the most appropriate way of doing it. We do not wish to make it easier for the Government on matters of Supply and I do not see why we should do so on motions for the Adjournment.

10.50 pm
Mr. Pym

The contributions that have been made to the debate have shown how right it was to hold it. It has enabled the Government to take the mind of the House and to hear the various views that have been expressed. It has been an informative and valuable debate.

It is clear that a great deal of what the Committee recommended is acceptable to both sides of the House. It is clear also that there is much more work to do. That is not a reflection on the admirable work that has been done so far. My right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) described the report as modest and radical, which some might regard as fair. I think that I would do so. My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) thought that it was rather disappointing. He wanted something much more far-reaching. The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) thought that the terms of reference were wrong anyway. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) thought that it was a good beginning. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Thomas) thought that it was major and radical. Any report that produces that variety of opinion must be worth while. We are united in congratulating and thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing for what he has done.

I was glad to be able to re-establish the Select Committee recently. I think that the House knows that I should have liked to do so earlier had that been possible. However, it is now continuing with its excellent work. I note the comments of the hon. Member for Norwich, South about that being done on a Sessional basis only.

Mr. John Garrett

I owe the right hon. Gentleman an apology. I accused him of setting up the Committee whose report we are considering on a Sessional basis. I understand that it was not his fault, and I withdraw that charge against him. To that extent, my encomium of the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) is slightly diminished.

Mr. Pym

That is kind of the hon. Gentleman. He is probably not aware that I had some interest in the background to the establishment of the Select Committees. However, credit must go to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford for the manner in which he proceeded in 1979.

As for the proposed Estimates Business Committee, I suggested that the task to be presented to it could equally well be undertaken by the Liaison Committee. That suggestion was objected to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and by a number of other hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I question whether it is necessary to establish yet an additional Committee to do the job. I agree that the Liaison Committee was not set up to do that work, but it seems that it is a Committee that could undertake the task. The Chairman of the Liaison Committee was neutral on the issue. I shall consider the matter further.

I suggested that three days should be allocated to the Opposition, but that was criticised by most hon. Members on the ground that three days were insufficient. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford supported my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing in that view and said that three days were far too few and that we should have seven days. It was not surprising that the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) thought that three days were too few. The hon. Member for Heeley and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hendon, South also thought that three days were too few. However, I note that the official Opposition, whose view was expressed by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris), thought that three days were about right. I think that he said that it should be three to four days. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hendon, South thought that it should be four days. It is an issue about which I shall have to think.

I ask those who are enthusiastic about seven days and those who think that even that would be inadequate "Where is it all to come from?" From whichever side of the House the allocation comes, it will have to be done at the expense of something else. I do not think that there was any constructive comment from those who contributed on this issue in proposing from where the time was to be found.

I take comfort from the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing confessed that he thought it was bad to begin with more days than the House would find that it needed, which would lead to a recommendation to reduce the number of days. If one is to make a change of the kind proposed by the Committee, and obviously the Government, as I am, are in favour of that, it would be sensible to start on a modest basis, and if after the experience of a Session or perhaps two it is found that it is wholly inadequate, as has been maintained, the House will find ways of adjusting and extending it. It is easier to do that than to start with too many days. This is particularly so since, were we to start on the basis of anything like seven or eight days, we would find that the strain on both sides of the House in sacrificing other time would be considerable.

I accept that criticism has been made of my proposals and that Members are in favour of more days, and perhaps that justifies the fact that I opened the debate myself with some explanation of the Government's views so that hon. Members could make comments on my initial reaction.

There is also the difficult question of how the Opposition days are allocated. However many it may be decided to have in the end, there has to be a decision about how they are to be allocated. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed raised the question and said that he did not wish the official Opposition to have control of allocation. He was speaking about the reluctance of the Opposition of the day, of whichever party, to give any time at a certain time in the year. It sounded to me as though he wanted to use the House to call to account not only the Government, but the Opposition. He seemed to be putting forward new ideas on which there would be comment if they were to be taken seriously.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford did not think that it was right for the official Opposition to control the allocation of Opposition time. However, there was no suggestion either from him or from anyone else—that is not a criticism—of the basis on which an alteration in the allocation should be made. I know that the Committee spoke about a mathematical basis, as did the hon. Member for Farnworth. I am reluctant to suggest that anything in the House works on a mathematical basis. It would not make much sense, as we are a collection of human beings, representing human beings, and, on the whole, mathematics is not a good guide. Still, it is a point of view.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

Would the Leader of the House accept and make it unequivocal that it must be on an elected basis?

Mr. Pym

That is another point of view. The SDP has at the moment but one elected Member, although as far as I, as Leader of the House, am concerned, it is a properly constituted party.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that selection for the Standing Committees works on a mathematical basis?

Mr. Pym

There is that background of the number of seats in relation to seats on Standing Committees. When one comes to break down Opposition time to try to accommodate minority parties fairly, it was pointed out that it would be difficult to do so in such small proportions that there would be a fair allocation. That is something to which further consideration must be given, and just as I, as Leader of the House, have responsibility in this area, so the official Opposition will have a responsibility to consider the matter.

I shall consider carefully all that has been said in the debate and in due course bring forward motions that will enable the House to come to conclusions. The motions will all be amendable, so the House can vote as often as it likes. We have had experience of late night votings. When we come to that debate I shall focus the attention of the House on some of the key issues. I hope that that will be a step forward in the direction of reform.

I regret that we have been criticised for holding the debate today. It seemed to me to be an inevitable and necessary preliminary process before any motion could be put on the Order Paper. How else could I know what the House wishes? Now that I have heard the voices, we can make further progress. I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate.

Mr. Ian Lang (Galloway)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.