HC Deb 09 June 1986 vol 99 cc16-8
24. Mr. Peter Bruinvels

asked the Lord Privy Seal if he has any plans to seek to reduce the number of sitting days per Session.

The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

No, Sir.

Mr. Bruinvels

I was one of the hon. Members who successfully reduced the number of days that the House sat last week, and I deeply regret that there is to be no change in the number of days that the House sits each year, bearing in mind that it sits for more days than any other Parliament in western Europe. On average, the House sits 170 days a year. Will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration at least to reducing some of the business that is brought before the House and thus reducing the number of days that we sit each year?

Mr. Biffen

If my hon. Friend's contribution to shortening the number of days on which the House sits was to speak at 8.28 in the morning for one minute, I must say that that was a well-judged achievement. I must tell him that I do not think that the House would wish its arrangements to be seriously disturbed unless there was an entirely different understanding about how we process legislation. That is not something that is merely in the keep of the Government or supporters of the Government. The number of days on which the House has sat has remained broadly the same over the past decade, but my hon. Friend has raised an issue that can always be considered by the Procedure Committee.

Mr. Foot

As the Leader of the House has followed with such obvious care the detail of what was said throughout that night of squalor and disgrace last Thursday, will he tell us why he did not at some stage in the proceedings step in to try to prevent what was happening? None of us can believe that he wanted the House to demean itself in such a way. We have been told that the Prime Minister was in favour of the course that was taken, but we cannot believe that the right hon. Gentleman was. Why did he not intervene to stop what was happening when he knew that he had the power to do so?

Mr. Biffen

The right hon. Gentleman is overplaying that point. I took care to note the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) because he is a persistent questioner. I thought it only courteous to acquaint myself with his recent contribution to reducing the number of days on which the House sits. Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, probably, I was in the House throughtout Thursday evening. I noted that no attempt was ever made to move the closure of any of the debates. That is the answer to those who believe that there was a filibuster.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

Will my right hon. Friend—a Tory and a churchman—seek to ensure that once again Whit Monday shall not be a sitting day?

Mr. Biffen

I must confess that, of all the supplementary answers that have been prepared for me on this subject, doubtless because some of my advisers have doubts about my being either a Tory or a churchman, they had not anticipated that, but I shall certainly consider it.

Mr. Shore

The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) has brazenly confessed his own role in the proceedings last Thursday night, which resulted in the loss of one day's sitting. The Lord Privy Seal has been much more coy, but will he now take this opportunity to express his regret and condemnation of what was a disgraceful manoeuvre, and for the part played in it by his right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, and, indeed, the Prime Minister? Will he assure the House that, if he has any plans to reduce the number of sitting days, they will not include the west Lancashire solution —the organised filibuster to wipe out a private Members' day?

Mr. Biffen

No, I shall give none of those undertakings or signs of contrition which have been sought by the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, if we are to give the matter any degree of seriousness, I should say that the House would be well served by referring to the Crossman diaries, and to Friday 26 March, when they elaborated a stratagem ——

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Two wrongs do not make a right.

Mr. Biffen

No. It is a little too sensitive. It involved a stratagem which I think redounds with very little credit upon those who took it.

Mr. Simon Hughes

On the same subject, I hope that, none the less, the Leader of the House will accept that there is a difference between using parliamentary tactics to lose public or Government business, and using Government party tactics to obliterate private Members' business, from whichever party the private Member comes. Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared at least to look at the mechanisms so that the limited part of our time given to private Members is protected in future against any mechanism of contrived extension of Government or other official business?

Mr. Biffen

I repeat that I stand here with no sense of contrition about what happened last week. Those who want to engage in any historical analysis could well profit from looking at what happened on the famous occasion on 26 March 1965. If the hon. Gentleman believes that this is a point of substance, he has his own remedy, by turning to the Procedure Committee.

Sir David Price

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to achieve what my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) requires would be for the House to concentrate more upon the quality rather than the quantity of legislation? With that aim in mind, will my right hon. Friend explain to my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench and to the parliamentary draftsmen that the Almighty, in his legislation, was rather more precise and succinct than the Government are today, and that the Almighty did it all in 10 Commandments— 10 clauses — and did not need to go to schedules or statutory instruments?

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says. I am sure he will realise that those words have echoed down the centuries. Meanwhile I suggest that in the usual channels we have the slogan, "Nearer my God to Thee."