§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Fallon.]
§ [Relevant Procedure Committee documents: Second Report (HC 49 of Session 1984–85) on Public Bill Procedure; Second Report (HC 324 of Session 1985–86) on Allocation of Time to Government Bills in Standing Committee; First Report (HC 157 of Session 1986–87) on A Parliamentary Calendar; Second Report (HC 350 of Session 1986–87) on Use of Time on the Floor of the House; Third Report (HC 254 of Session 1986–87) on Early Day Motions; Fourth Report (HC 373 of Session 1986–87) on the Work of the Committee; and First Report (HC 705 of Session 1987–88) on the Implications for Procedure of the Experiment in Televising the Proceedings of the House.]7.18 pm
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Wakeham)
One of the many duties of the Leader of the House is to try to ensure that its procedures are kept under regular review and that the House has opportunities from time to time to express its opinions on procedural matters. Tonight's debate on a motion for the Adjournment provides such an opportunity and will enable hon. Members to raise any aspect of procedure in which they have an interest.
The main matters before us tonight are the Procedure Committee's reports, listed on the Order Paper. I shall make some comments on those reports later in my speech, but first I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and the fellow members of his Committee for their conscientious and valuable work. I understand that my hon. Friend hopes to catch your eye later tonight, Mr. Speaker, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
In addition to these reports, however, there are several other current procedural matters which are of particular concern to a number of hon. Members. The Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure has recently produced a report of fundamental importance, for which I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and to the other members of his Committee. As hon. Members will appreciate, the report will require detailed and extensive consultation. This is bound to take some time, and I see no prospect of legislation being introduced this Session, but I have said that, unusually, I will try to arrange a debate before the Government have responded to the Committee's recommendation in the normal way so that the views of the House can be expressed.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I am sure that the Leader of the House will realise that this is not only an excellent report but the culmination of a great deal of concern in the House about this matter. He is saying that there will be a chance for an early debate, but little chance of changing Standing Orders in this Session. Does that mean that private Bills being introduced in 12 months' time will still go on under the old procedure? Many hon. Members feel that that would be unsatisfactory.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that there are moves afoot from various hon. Members to block private business so as to precipitate a decision. I for one would not be too enthusiastic at having to carry out 764 that exercise for a whole 12 months. Will the Leader of the House at least give thought to the idea that, by the time Bills are introduced in 12 months, we should have the new procedures in operation?
§ Mr. Wakeham
I am not sure that I go along with the hon. Member's suggestion that it is acceptable to deal with matters before the House not on the merits of the issues but having regard to other considerations which are nothing to do with the promoters of the Bill or the merits of the Bill. I know that he wants to be helpful, and I wish to be helpful as well. This is an important report, and we should not delay it unnecessarily. The right thing to do is to have a debate as soon as we can to hear the views. I said, not that Standing Orders could not be altered if that was the will of the House, but that the legislation that will be necessary to implement some of these proposals could not be introduced this Session. The best thing is to proceed with a debate on the issue as soon as we can, to hear the views and see whether there is a measure of agreement as to how we should proceed and in what direction.
Another issue which came significantly and sadly to the fore in the last Session of Parliament was the behaviour of hon. Members in the Chamber. We all expect that debates will sometimes be passionate and that feelings will run high, but we also expect Members to bow to your authority, Mr. Speaker, when you rule that things have gone far enough. Last Session, hon. Members were suspended from the service of the House nine times, compared with just 17 previous such occasions in more than 40 years since the war. This fact perhaps shows that the penalty of a five-day suspension is no longer enough when calculated against the media publicity that such suspensions entail. Hon. Members may wish to air their views on this matter this evening. I am sure that the Procedure Committee, which is currently considering the matter, will find them helpful.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Is there not another side to this coin, which is that the most senior Ministers of the House of Commons should tell the truth to the House of Commons?
§ Mr. Wakeham
I refute that. I do not believe that it is any justification for disobeying Mr. Speaker, on any basis. I am surprised that the hon. Member, with his experience, believes that that justifies him disobeying Mr. Speaker.
A further matter affecting the procedures of the House which will be in hon. Members' minds is the effect which television has on our deliberations. The Committee has just published its first report of the current Parliament on this matter. I have noted the Committee's recommendations that there should be no change to procedures while the experiment is in operation, and I concur with this. 'We have voted for an experimental period of televising. Let us have the experimental period first before we decide on any implications for our procedure.
§ Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)
I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the debate on 9 February, when the motion before the House was:That this House approves in principle the holding of an experiment in the public broadcasting of its proceedings by television; and believes that a Select Committee should be appointed to consider the implementation of such an experiment".I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the fact that the television cameras have already been in this 765 Chamber during the proceedings of this place. I understand that it would be surprising if the State Opening were deemed not to be a proceeding for the purpose of privilege. After all, both Houses are at that time properly constituted. In those circumstances, how can the Committee studythe implementation of such an experimentwhen the implementation has already taken place?
§ Mr. Wakeham
I assure my hon. Friend that the Committee, of which I am the Chairman, has not yet finished its deliberations or started to make its report. That report has to come before the House, and it has to be approved by the House before any experiment, under the terms of the resolution that my hon. Friend quoted, can be carried out by the House. I gave no permission for any television cameras to proceed, so it is not a matter for me whether any television cameras broadcast at any time.
My hon. Friend may be referring to the fact that, at the time of the State Opening of Parliament, there were some television cameras in the Chamber which were used not for the broadcasting of the State Opening but for an experiment in the lighting arrangements, which was conducted by the Committee the day before, and which had been the subject of some discussion in the House. As far as I know, those cameras were not connected to the gubbins that are necessary before they can produce the signals that can go out across the ether to the great wide world. As I understand it, they were in operation the day before and the only signal that was received was on six monitors that were in the Aye Lobby at the time.
Where did I get to?
§ Mr. Wakeham
I think that I was saying, to put it into a sentence, that we should deal with the experiment of television before we deal with the procedures of the House. The tail must not be allowed to wag the dog.
Each hon. Member will have his own particular interests and priorities in procedural matters. If they succeed in catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, I have little doubt, for example, that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) will have something to say on the times and lengths of our sittings, the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) may remind us of the importance of arrangements for scrutinising EC documents, and the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Faulds) may be able to advise us how best to prepare ourselves for television. Other subjects, which I have not touched upon, could be raised.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Did the Leader of the House notice this afternoon the difficulty into which Mr. Speaker once again got as a result of this abomination of the open question? Is he going to give any views on the shortcomings of the open question? Have the Government considered whether this is a satisfactory arrangement? When we first came here, Prime Minister's questions were extremely strict and Macmillan and Home, and Wilson in his better days, would transfer any question that was not the responsibility of the Prime Minister. I submitted evidence to the Committee on this subject, and I wonder whether the Government have any reflections on it.
§ Mr. Wakeham
The Government are perfectly willing to agree with the wishes of the House in this matter. The Government do not have a strong view on how those matters should be dealt with. Ministers are here to answer questions and they will do their best to do so. However, the present arrangements are probably the most generally acceptable to the House. We may be a little wiser at the end of the debate, and the Procedure Committee may return to the issue.
§ Mr. Wakeham
This will be the last time that I give way. This debate is designed to enable people to express their views, and hon. Members can make their own speeches.
§ Mr. Thompson
I was interested in the point that has just been made about the televising of Parliament and the State Opening. I watched the television programme on the State Opening, so I intervene merely for information. I do not know which cameras were used, but there was a view of the Chamber including all the Benches. I do not know how that was obtained and I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider that point.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I am happy to consider that point, but it has nothing to do with my Committee. We did not do anything that we should not have done. Front-Bench Opposition Members who are distinguished members of that Committee can confirm that we are innocent.
I wish briefly to outline some general principles and to comment particularly on two of the principal matters dealt with in the Procedure Committee's reports which are before us tonight.
It seems to me that there are certain general questions which hon. Members on both sides of the House need to ask themselves when considering the principle and practicality of these or any other changes to our present procedures. First, will they in practice mean a more efficient scrutiny of legislation by the House? Secondly, do they respect the rights of the Opposition to probe the Government's proposals and advocate alternatives? Thirdly, can they be implemented without making unreasonable demands on the time and energies of Back Benchers? Fourthly, do they still permit a Government to "get their business" in an acceptable way? In other words, the proposals should not lay themselves open to exploitation designed to disrupt the normal proceedings of the House. Of course, a balance between these questions may need to be struck, but I believe that Members will wish to be assured that any changes in procedure will provide satisfactory answers to them.
Against that background, I turn, first, to the Committee's revised proposals for the timetabling of Government Bills in Standing Committee; and, secondly, to the proposals for major changes in the procedures for dealing with delegated legislation, and, in particular, prayers.
On timetabling, if I may remind the House, the Committee's main recommendation is that each Standing Committee should have its own Business Sub-Committee. After six sittings of the Standing Committee, the Business Sub-Committee would report to it, in the absence of "satisfactory understandings", its proposals on the date by which the Bill concerned should be reported to the House, the number of sittings required and, if appropriate, the 767 times at which the various stages of the Bill should be concluded. Such reports would be brought before the Standing Committee for debate and decision.
I share the desire of the Procedure Committee to move towards the introduction of timetable motions, where necessary, at a time which allows for properly apportioned consideration of a Bill. In the most recent Session of Parliament, we have done our best to organise the business with this in mind, most notably with the timetable motions on the Education Reform and Local Government Finance Bills.
However, I see several difficulties with the Committee's proposals. In my view, they may be an overreaction to a comparatively limited problem. I acknowledge that, in some cases in recent years, Committee stages have led to unbalanced scrutiny—the Telecommunications Bill is an example—but such instances are comparatively rare and, as I have explained, I am trying to reduce them still further.
Moreover, it seems to me critical that decisions about the progress of individual Standing Committees and the need for timetabling should be taken and negotiated, as at present, in the context of a judgment on the progress of business in the House as a whole. I am not convinced that the proposed Business Sub-Committees would be able to take account of all the factors involved, nor is there any guarantee that the overall time spent by Back Benchers in Committee would not increase.
However, I have discussed with my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton and the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) the various ways in which individual Standing Committees might be given some formal role in bringing the progress of business in Committee to the attention of the House. I hope that these discussions can be taken further forward, so that I can bring forward practical proposals to the House. In particular, I look forward to hearing the suggestions of Opposition Members in a few minutes' time.
On delegated legislation, the Committee has put forward proposals which they hope would enable prayers to be debated and which would, as a quid pro quo to the Government, hold out the prospect of more affirmative motions being taken in Committee. In order to achieve this, the Committee proposes that any 20 Members would have the right to move at 3.30 pm that a prayer should be referred to a Standing Committee, with such motions being blockable by 20 or more other Members. A Minister, backed by a majority, would also have the power to ensure that an affirmative order was taken in Standing Committee rather than on the Floor. In other words, this would override the present blocking power of 20 Members.
Again, however, I see a number of potential difficulties with these proposals as they now stand.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I said that I would not give way again because I want to hear everyone's views, and it is important that I get on.
Regarding the proposals on prayers, I believe that there is, again, a danger of exaggerating the problems that they are designed to address. Although I accept that a large number of prayers go undebated, as the House knows, prayers are frequently tabled for purposes other than 768 debate. I believe that, in the majority of cases where there is a genuine widespread desire for a debate, consultations through the usual channels enable this to be arranged.
I recognise that the Liberal party—if I am allowed to call it by that name—does not get as many prayers as it would like, but, by definition, the number of Liberal Members means that they cannot always command a large number of prayers.
§ Mr. Beith
Surely the right hon. Gentleman knows that, when those procedures were introduced, the then Leader of the House said that time would be found for all prayers to be dabated. The test of whether a prayer should be debated is not whether a large number of Members wish to debate it, but whether it constitutes legislation and should therefore be scrutinised by the House.
§ Mr. Wakeham
The present arrangements are reasonably satisfactory, and those prayers which there is a widespread desire to debate are debated. I am considering a proposal in the report which I believe is not totally satisfactory. Moreover, it seems to me that the proposals whereby any 20 Members could at 3.30 block prayers from going into Committee for debate might invite regular and unproductive confrontation at this time of day. As far as affirmative orders are concerned, existing provisions mean that effectively, when the Opposition so desire, arrangements are made to take them on the Floor. Under the Committee's proposals, this provision would be lost. I do not believe that this would be acceptable either to the official Opposition or to private Members generally.
Looking at the Committee's other recommendations on delegated legislation, while I accept that debate on substantive motions on instruments in Committee would give the latter a more formal role, I suspect that this would lead to greater attention to whipping arrangements than at present and to longer hours for Committee members; so, too, would the proposal for scrapping the 11.30 "cut-off' for prayers, with the "knock-on" effect that this would have on earlier business.
Recalling to mind the general questions that I posed earlier, Mr. Speaker, I am not myself convinced that the Committee's proposals on the scrutiny of delegated legislation or on the timetabling of Bills answer them satisfactorily.
We do not live in a perfect world. It would be excellent if the House had the time to consider at length every piece of delegated legislation, every European document, every clause of every Bill, and all in the civilised hours that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North is proposing. Unless we invent some sort of time tardis, where the time available is infinitely longer than would appear from the outside parameters, then we shall have to accept that giving more time to one area of our work will restrict consideration of another.
In recent Sessions, the House has reached general agreement and taken a consequent decision on a number of procedural matters. For example, Mr. Speaker, you now have the power to call for short speeches during certain debates; steps have been taken against filibustering during Committee and Report stages; and Special Standing Committees have been incorporated into the Standing Orders of the House. Tonight's debate provides us with a useful opportunity to assess other common 769 ground on procedure and determine the general wishes of the House on the next priorities for action. I shall listen with interest.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I advise the House that I have no authority to impose short speeches in this debate. However, as the debate must end at 10 o'clock, I ask those who participate in it to be brief so that all hon. Members now in the Chamber may contribute to it.
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
I welcome, however belatedly, the holding of the debate. I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for the kind things that he said about me. I do not believe that it is sour grapes for me to comment that the first of the reports that we are considering this evening was published 29 months ago. With the exception of the report which was published yesterday, the remaining four reports were published not later than May 1987, in the previous Session. The House may recall that we were first promised the debate during business questions in June 1987.
I hope that the House will not think me unreasonable when I say that 14 senior Members spent many hours in Committee and in detailed research trying to produce recommendations that may drag, even at a snail's pace, some of the procedures of the House into the 20th century, not the 21st century, or even 1992. Surely the Government have a responsibility—yea, I venture to say a duty—to ensure that the House is allowed to debate our reports within a reasonable period—six months after the submission of reports. A delay of two years is an insult to those who have spent much time and effort on their work. Indeed, one member of the Procedure Committee refused to remain a member of it during the previous Parliament because he decided that its work was not considered seriously by either of the Front Benches. Perhaps I may have an assurance that that is not the position, and that in future our reports will be put promptly before the House, especially when reform of procedure is part of the recommendation.
I turn now to happier matters. I am grateful that two of the Committee's recommendations have found their way on to the statute book, as it were. The use of Special Standing Committees is now part of Standing Committee procedure, but I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to ensure that they are used when appropriate. Since the acceptance of the procedure on 27 February 1986—I remember the date because it is my birthday—no Bill has been referred to a Special Standing Committee. Is the procedure to be allowed to wither on the vine? The Licensing Bill, as it then was, which was considered in the previous Session, was not a highly party-political measure and it would have been ideal for the Special Standing Committee procedure, which would have enabled outside views to be heard.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Leader of the House should tell us which of the Bills referred to in the Gracious Speech he intends to refer to a Special Standing Committee?
§ Sir Peter Emery
I am certain that my right hon. Friend will have heard the hon. Gentleman's sensible intervention. Perhaps we shall have an answer to his question.
I am happy that the 10-minute rule for speeches during the middle two hours of a debate has been enshrined, but perhaps the House will accept my apology, as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, with six reports before the House, for not containing my remarks within 600 seconds.
I shall try to deal with four of the main parts of the Committee's reports. The part which I consider to be the most important is the allocation of time for the consideration of a Bill in Committee and on the Floor of the House. After all, time is essential for all of us in this place. I hope that this issue will be the main consideration of those who participate in the debate when I resume my seat. Even if other matters are of importance to them, I ask hon. Members to press the Government and the Opposition to accept that the Committee's recommendations have positive merit and deserve at least an experimental period so that their workability, which has been questioned by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, can be assessed properly.
What is the history of the matter? When the Procedure Committee was established at the beginning of the previous Parliament, in March 1984, it was directed by the House to consider the passage of Bills in Committee. After considerable study the Committee reported on a procedure for the formation of a Legislative Business Committee that would assess each Bill. That Committee, if it considered that a Bill would remain in Committee for more than 40 hours, would establish a time structure to be set so that all parts of the Bill would be considered in Committee without the need of a special timetable motion to be debated and passed on the Floor of the House.
That proposal was voted down because it was considered to be too inflexible. That meant that it took a little power away from the business managers and the Whips and, audaciously, gave that power to Back-Bench Members. We now know that that is the definition of inflexibility. When we set out to whittle away the power of the Whips, the walls of Jericho are before us. The trumpets of the Procedure Committee were not strong enough.
Having analysed the vote on the issue, there was a greater turnout of the Establishment—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, members of the Cabinet, junior Whips and all the Parliamentary Private Secretaries—than on any other three-line Whip of the Parliament. I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, for I mislead you. It was a greater turnout of the Establishment than on any other Division because it was a one-line Whip, not a three-line or two-line Whip. To safeguard "flexibility", the payroll marched into the Government Lobby three abreast. Only two members of it were absent. One was quite ill and the wife of the other was presenting him with a child.
The Procedure Committee was not discouraged. If it was, it was for only a moment. It turned the other cheek and tried to overcome the criticisms. It adopted the criteria that are now agreed with the business managers. The four main essentials in considering changes are exactly those which were outlined by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. They are as follows: will they in practice lead to a material improvement; do they leave intact the legitimate rights of the Opposition; can they be implemented without placing unreasonable extra burdens on Back Benchers; do they still permit the Government to get their business?
771 What is necessary for Bills that are being considered in Committee? A Committee should not waste 100 or 120 hours debating the first three or four clauses of a Bill, thereby proving its virility in its opposition to the measure, until a guillotine motion is forced on the Government. As a procedure, that is nonsense.
§ Sir Peter Emery
There are a number of examples. During each Session, between five and seven timetable motions have to be introduced. The result of that procedure means, in many instances, that half or two thirds of the Bills are never discussed in Committee. I cannot give all the statistics to the House in what must be a short speech. I merely say that the facts are set out at the back of the Committee's report. The issue has been analysed quite fully and the conclusion hits the argument that there are not many examples of the first three or four clauses of a Bill being discussed for 100 or 120 hours, for example.
Steps should be taken to try to ensure that every part of a Bill is discussed in Committee. We should not further the madness whereby amendments and clauses are discussed and voted upon hours after midnight after a normal working day. The rest of the world thinks that we are mad, or, even worse, irresponsible, in continuing with this medieval procedure. The House may take these all-night sittings seriously but the country does not, especially when we appear to be acting as prize asses.
What has the Procedure Committee recommended? The recommendation is that, after six sittings of a Bill in Committee, the Business Sub-Committee—which would be similar to that appointed after a timetable motion, but nominated at the time of the selection of the Committee—should consider whether the Bill is proceeding satisfactorily. If it is, which will be the position in nine out of 10 instances, as suggested by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), no action will be taken and the Committee will proceed in the normal way. If the Business Sub-Committee considers that there are problems, it will take only one action at the first instance, but not that inferred by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. It will decide by what date the Bill needs to be reported to the House. The Members and the Whips will then use their brilliant and historic techniques to help bring this about, with the proviso that time is found for every part of the Bill to be debated.
If that procedure has been implemented, the Business Sub-Committee will meet again after 25 hours of debate. If all is proceeding reasonably at that stage, no further action will be taken. If, however, the Bill is bogged down, the Business Sub-Committee will then, and only then, decide exactly what time shall be allocated to each part of the Bill and how that will be structured within the date required for the Bill to be reported to the House. That may require afternoon sittings, evening sittings or even sittings three days a week. However, there should be no sittings after 10 pm or after the rising of the House. In that instance. Opposition Members will know, from their experience of dealing with timetable motions, that when a Business Sub-Committee operates, the Opposition call the shots as to what should or should not be debated within the time scale. We give a specific power to the Opposition 772 to ensure that what they want to have properly debated in Committee, as long as all parts of the Bill are debated, shall be given proper and adequate time.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett
That is not so. Once the slots are allocated, any member of the Committee can filibuster or talk at length on one item so that a particular issue in that slot is not reached. That happens frequently under the present guillotine procedure. The hon. Gentleman is saying that the Government want to timetable a Bill from the start. If that is what he is after, that is totally unacceptable to the Opposition.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is the last thing that I am trying to obtain. If what the Eon. Gentleman is suggesting occurs, it is within the power of the Business Sub-Committee to allocate much smaller slots than at present. There is a method within the proposal to correct that sort of thing. Having had to deal with Business Sub-Committees, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's criticism. If his criticism is true, the Business Sub-Committee could allocate the slots to a smaller amount of time to ensure that what he suggests does not happen and that the filibuster is not used.
Two matters are very important. First, there have been no instances that the Clerk of the House can find over the past 30 years where delays caused by the Opposition in Committee have stopped a piece of legislation set out in the Queen's Speech from reaching the statute book. Nor has delay in one Bill stopped other Bills announced in the Queen's Speech from being enacted. The concept of great delays in Committee harassing the Government and stopping legislation is a false shibboleth. The only harm that does is to the sleeping habits of the Back-Bench members of that Committee.
Secondly, if the procedure that I have outlined were adopted, we would save between two and a half and three and a half days a Session on the Floor of the House. That time might be given to private Members' Bills or perhaps it would allow the House to rise a week earlier at the end of a Session. Everyone knows that the present half-day taken for a timetable motion is a complete waste of time. We no longer see it as a great parliamentary occasion. Usually the House has only a smattering of Members. There is no real heat, as there used to be 20 or 30 years ago, and time after time we hear the same speeches of noise and thunder. If ever Macbeth's lines apply outside the original script, they do to guillotine motions:Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a matter not simply of people's sleeping habits being interrupted, but that the primary job of a Committee, of scrutinising legislation, does not occur? Whole chunks of legislation go through which have never seen the light of day in Committee.
§ Sir Peter Emery
The hon. Gentleman's intervention came at exactly the right moment in my speech. I was about to say that we should have sensibly staged debates in Committee so that a Bill can be properly and fully considered and not sent off to the Lords half-digested. That would save considerable time on the Floor of the House. We would also not have the filibuster at the start, which is useless.
More time could be saved if the second-look procedure were adopted. Under that procedure, the Government 773 would give undertakings to introduce amendments or reconsider specific points. The Standing Committee could be adjourned after the normal completion of the Bill and asked to sit again within three weeks to take up the points that have been outlined by the Minister. The Minister would return to deal with those points which he considered helpful. That would save those matters having to be dealt with on Report and in certain instances—for example, the Committee stage of the Housing Act 1988—a vast amount of time could be saved for the Report stage and for the House as a whole.
The first report of the Procedure Committee of Session 1986–87 recommended that a parliamentary calendar should be fixed for the dates of sittings. It must be to the benefit of Members to know exactly, more than just a few days ahead, what the schedule of the House is for Christmas and Easter even if the Government require flexibility at the end of the summer. It is no good saying, "Well, one knows approximately." If we want to make plans for constituency tours, overseas visits or to make arrangements with our families, whether the House is returning on 7 January or on any day up to 21 January is of vital importance to our engagements. The Government should be able to announce the dates for rising and returning for the Christmas and Easter recesses at the end of the Queen's Speech, even if they will not accept the full calendar arrangements set out in the report.
The report about televising the proceedings is quite clear, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has summed it up. It is for television to adapt to ensure that Parliament is properly portrayed and presented to the viewing public. Therefore, no changes to procedure are required at this stage.
There is a great need for consideration of delegated legislation. The report on delegated legislation is detailed and specific and highlights a number of serious problems that are likely to become worse rather than better. More and more we see parliamentary draftsmen and civil servants legislating the principle of the law, but leaving the regulations—the nitty-gritty of the law—to be decided by statutory instrument, which is out of the way in 90 minutes and can be altered the following year and every subsequent year if required. That is not the way that the Procedure Committee believes that the laws of the land should be made.
As 1992 approaches and more EEC regulations come upon us, the Procedure Committee report makes detailed and specific observations. The amount of European legislation that must be considered is much greater than most hon. Members understand. It is imperative that a more effective method for our consideration of that delegated legislation is found. I urge that paragraphs 11 to 38 of the report should have a full debate and not just be shoved away. Those aspects of delegated legislation and the necessary reforms for amendments to delegated legislation require a great deal of thought.
The strong dissatisfaction about the ability of private Members' legislation to be fully considered by the House was more obvious than any other issue raised by hon. Members with the Procedure Committee. That was clear to the previous Procedure Committee and was reinforced to the present Committee. On two Mondays in the late spring, instead of having four half-days for private 774 Members' motions, they should be transferred to two appropriate Fridays. Secondly, the longer full two days should be replaced by an allocation to private Members' Bills. The Government would lose no time and private Members would benefit.
The House should consider whether the hon. Member in charge of the first Bill on that Monday should be allowed the option of moving the suspension of the 10 o'clock rule. Of course, that could be divided against and the hon. Member would have to carry the House. Again, the Government would lose none of their allocation of time if such a motion were carried. However, that would be a way of overcoming the strong feeling that when a Bill received very strong support on Second Reading it should not be blocked by three or four strategically placed amendments on Report on a Friday. It should have the same possibility of consideration as is given to Government legislation. That is not as revolutionary as it sounds because it would apply only to two private Members' Bills each year—those which were first on the two Mondays to which they were allocated.
§ Mr. Alton
I welcome what the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he agree with the Bow Group's recent recommendation that the House should have the ability to formulate and move a motion to provide extra time for private Members' Bills? If it is the will of the House, after a Bill has had a Second Reading and been considered in Committee and on Report, surely it would not be unreasonable to allow the House of Commons to decide whether it wishes to allocate more time to complete the stages of that Bill.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I fully understand what the hon. Gentleman says. However, I have to consider the way in which the Government act. The Government act in a very predictable way. That suggestion would mean that some Government time would have to be allocated to private Members' Bills. Our suggestion involves no taking away of Government time. Therefore, it stands a better chance of being accepted by the Government than anything that would cut Government time. Obviously, hon. Members must make their own speeches.
Lastly, I wish to make two small but interesting suggestions. One is that a special or emergency Adjournment debate be allowed by the Speaker on two occasions per week for 20 minutes—a 10-minute speech and a 10-minute reply by a Minister—prior to the normal Adjournment. That would be for specific matters of considerable importance that had arisen. Some hon. Members do not like that suggestion, but it was made by the Committee.
The other suggestion is the possibility of time for private Members' motions on a Friday being split so that one is debated for three hours—rather similar to a Monday half-day—thereby allowing a second motion to be debated for two hours. That, again, would spread the availability of time for private Members.
The House will be aware that much work has been done by the Committee. I do not intend to sum up what I have said, but simply return to the most important points. If Parliament is seriously to be considered as trying to make sense of its procedure, nowhere more than upstairs in Committee is sensible change essential. We must not waste hon. Members' time in parliamentary dog-fighting, even if it is only for 50 or 70 hours—as was suggested by my right 775 hon. Friend the Leader of the House—on the first few clauses of a Bill. We must ensure that all parts of a Bill are seriously considered, debated and open to amendment before the Bill leaves the Committee. We must not sit at all hours of the day and night, to the scorn of the well-informed, the disrespect of the media, the satirical comment of the comedian, the contempt of those who wish to see good law reach the statute book, and—perhaps although of little importance—the ultimate despair of our wives. On this matter as much as any other, will the House this evening give clear guidance to the business managers?
§ 8.2 pm
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
I cannot speak on this subject without paying a heartfelt tribute to the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), who has worked so zealously as Chairman of the Committee on which I used to serve, undeterred by the shabby way in which the Committee has been treated. He referred to the fact that the payroll vote was wheeled out on a one-line Whip to defeat some major proposals and to the fact that reports have not been debated. Through all that he kept the Committee at work producing more proposals on a wide range of subjects. The House owes him a considerable debt for the work that he has done and continues to do.
I was disappointed by the speech of the Leader of the House. After a couple of hours listening to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee in public session, I thought that I had heard the most complacent of Ministers. It pains me even to imply that the Leader of the House is more complacent than the Chancellor, because I like him rather better than I do the Chancellor. However, he was totally complacent about many aspects of the procedures of the House. That can be attributed either to a lack of radical spirit or to a preference for the fact that at present the Government get their own way very nicely over far too many things.
I shall pick out some of the key points that have emerged from this great pile of reports. First, on Standing Committee procedure, the Committee produced revised proposals, after criticisms of their first proposals, designed to ensure that Bills were properly debated in Standing Committee. It is scandalous that large chunks of Bills go on to the statute book without a word of debate in Committee. The House ought not to tolerate that state of affairs, which arises at least partly because of the determination of hon. Members to demonstrate their total opposition to certain Bills. But that total opposition does not prevent their having views on what the Bills should be like if they are passed, and therefore there is a need for orderly discussion. The Government really must remove the block which, with some help from the Labour Front Bench, they have placed on sensible alternative proposals.
The Bills in the forthcoming legislative Session are enormous. For the first time I have received a Bill which runs to two volumes—the Water Bill is published in two separate volumes. There is a massive task ahead of us, and large chunks of those Bills which effect large numbers of people in Britain will never be debated in the House unless we get our procedures properly sorted out.
The proposal for Special Standing Committees was enacted by the House. It is an ideal procedure for dealing with such measures as licensing laws, Sunday trading and other issues, but it simply is not being used. I endorse the challenge of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish 776 (Mr. Bennett) that the Leader of the House should say now that he is willing to submit some of the Bills in this Session to Special Standing Committees.
The Committee did some excellent work on the statutory instruments procedure. That is an even bigger scandal. Year by year legislation pours out of this place which has not been the subject of any amendment procedure, or in many cases any debate whatsoever. People outside the House have to work with such legislation. I am surprised that the Leader of the House, as a qualified accountant, has not realised what a mess can be made of legislation that is not subject to a proper parliamentary scrutiny system.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments scrutinises those statutory instruments, every one of which passes through our hands? Therefore, there is some scrutiny. Can he persuade the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes) to turn up more often so that she can take part in that scrutiny?
§ Mr. Beith
I have not been very successful in persuading the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes) of late. I did not even persuade her to join my party. However, I did the hon Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments a disservice, because that Committee examines statutory instruments, not for their merits, but for their technical competence, and it does an excellent job. However, on many occasions it draws the attention of the House to failings of statutory instruments which the House does not discuss.
When the hon. Gentlemen earlier expressed some anxiety at the idea that we might remove the block that 20 hon. Members can now place on a statutory instrument going into Standing Committee, they seemed unaware that a successful placing of that block has the effect merely of ensuring that the instrument is never debated. If the 20 hon. Members rise to stop the Bill from going upstairs, there is no obligation whatsoever on the Leader of the House ever to find time for debate on the Floor of the House.
I do not accept the Leader of the House's contention that many prayers are tabled for purposes other than debate. If hon. Members want to express an opinion on something on the Order Paper, they table a substantive motion which says what they think. They do not simply put down, "That an humble address be presented to Her Majesty." That does not convey anything to anyone. It is there because there is a reason to debate an issue.
Prayers for which no time was found are listed in the Committee's report as a percentage of prayers tabled. At one time the figure used to be nil. In 1978–79 it was 28.3 per cent. It has gone up steadily. In 1985–86 it was 69.4 per cent. It is probably more now. Nearly 70 per cent. of prayers were not debated at all. That is 70 per cent. of those statutory instruments on which hon. Members have said there ought to be a debate. It is not good enough to say that there has to be a large number of hon. Members, a whole party, or the official Opposition, seeking a debate. That is not the principle on which we legislate. As long as there is any wish in the House for some procedure to be used, legislation should be subject to a procedure. It is the making of the law of the land.
§ Mr. Alton
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way before he leaves the question of how we go about 777 making legislation. In the same context, does he agree that the Orders in Council procedure that applies to Northern Ireland legislation is totally inadequate because it is unamendable, and therefore leaves the House with no choice other than to vote for or against that legislation at the end of a cursory one and a half hour debate? All that that leads to is a feeling of great annoyance and anger among hon. Members representing Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Beith
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I omitted to say that the recommendation that there should be at least a reasoned amendment procedure in Standing Committee is very important, because it enables a Standing Committee to give a signal that something fairly fundamental is wrong which would not lead it to throw out the measure, but which puts pressure on the Government to bring forward some alternative proposals on the Floor of the House.
The Committee made a limited recommendation, which I believe to be helpful, on private Members' legislation. It was defeated by a narrow margin of six votes to five. The proposal was that the House should, in a few limited circumstances, have the power to decide to bring the matter to a conclusion. If a Bill has had a Second Reading, been through its Committee stage and been debated for a considerable time, the House should have the power to bring the matter to a conclusion. Let us take the example of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) last Session. It brings the House into national disrepute when there has been a national debate on a major issue, the House has debated it at great length, but a decision cannot be reached because the House is incapable of giving itself time to reach a decision.
The Government do not accept any such restraint in their business. They say that they must have their business. All that was proposed was that the House should, in a few limited circumstances, have the power to decide that an important matter should be brought to a conclusion. Last year it was abortion, another year it might be freedom of information and yet another year a measure affecting the disabled. Whatever the Bill, if there has been massive public debate and the House has gone through all the procedures necessary to bring it to Report, it is ludicrous that the House should be incapable of reaching a decision.
The issue of the parliamentary calendar is probably more for the convenience of hon. Members and those who work for the House than for anyone else. It is ludicrous that we cannot predict when the House will rise at Christmas, Easter or summer. Indeed, Opposition Members might think that it would put the Government under usefully greater pressure if they had to work to a calendar. The Committee considered the Canadian example and found Members on both sides of that very divided and contentious House thoroughly happy that such a scheme had been introduced. I have checked since that visit, because there have been quite a few political alarms and excursions in Canada. Although the timetable was not fully operated in two recent years when major issues arose—most recently, the free trade issue—the Members still felt that it was good to have a timetable, even if sometimes they went outside it.
Other issues will arise. I share the Committee's view that it would be premature to make changes designed to 778 suit television. After all, it is only an experiment and it has not yet taken place. I think that, in time, some procedures will appear strange—for example, the leader of the largest Opposition party can ask repeated supplementaries during Prime Minister's questions, but that opportunity is never available to the next largest Opposition party. So great a difference cannot arise because one party is larger in Parliament than the other. In time, I am sure that that will be seen to be an unfair procedure, but we shall see when we have had the television experiment.
The House will have to consider wider issues. We believe that the House does too much—it legislates for Scotland, Wales and the regions of England on matters that should be decided in those areas. The sooner that there is a Parliament in Scotland, for example, dealing with those matters, the better. The Government also do too much. They are an amazingly itchy-fingered Government. They cannot wait to get their fingers into every possible aspect of our lives and then legislate about it. When I first came to the House many Tory Members of Parliament said that, when they were in power, there would not be so much legislation. They said that it was just the Socialists who wanted to interfere all the time. They said that when the Conservative party was in power there would be a lighter legislative timetable—at least, after the first couple of years when they had the main legislation on the statute book. What a fallacy that has turned out to be. There are no fingers itchier than those of Government Ministers, and none more so than the Ministers of this Government. I am not sure that our people are the better for that, as they struggle to live with the laws that we so inadequately scrutinise.
§ Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)
We should be thankful that, at long last, we are having this debate. It is a serious reflection on the way that we conduct our business that not until the end of 1988 are we considering valuable reports from the Select Committee on Procedure published over a period of three to four years.
I wish to direct my remarks to the second report, published in the 1986–87 Session, on the use of time on the Floor of the House and specifically to its reference to private Members' time. That is a crucial subject for hon. Members on both sides of the House, especially when the issues that they have sought to raise are of grave concern. I refer to matters with which Governments—indeed, all Governments—have felt unable to deal, such as abortion and tampering with the human embryo, both of which are concerned with the very beginnings of human life. If Governments have neither the time nor the moral courage to grapple with momentous issues of that kind, the least we can ask is that action is taken to consider the recommendations of Select Committees which have thought long and hard on the subjects and produced recommendations. Notice must be taken of the intense feeling of many hon. Members about the way in which we conduct business of this kind.
It is incomprehensible to the public how we dilly-dally and fudge important matters. Indeed, it is incomprehensible to them how it is that a private Member's Bill, which commands an overwhelming majority in the House on Second Reading and completes its Committee stage, cannot make any further progress because of deliberate, blatant sabotage by a minority of hon. Members through 779 the use of existing procedure. The matter was brought to a head in 1985—and one or two hon. Members have already reminded the House of this—after a private Member's motion was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden). It followed a blatant abuse of procedure, designed to block Mr. Enoch Powell's Unborn Children (Protection) Bill. Mr. Powell had introduced his Bill in December 1984. It was given a Second Reading on Friday 15 February 1985 by a large majority of 230 to 66, and it was sent to Standing Committee. It successfully completed its Committee stage and returned to the Floor of the House to begin its Report stage on Friday 3 May, when it was the second order of the day.
The first order was a non-controversial Bill on the subject of road traffic documents, which had obtained a Second Reading on the nod and spent only five minutes in Committee. Because of a determined filibuster the debate on Mr. Powell's Bill did not begin until 1 o'clock. Mr. Powell moved the closure at 2.29 pm and a vote was taken on the hostile amendment under discussion, which the supporters of the Bill won by 157 votes to 82. There was then no further time available for the Bill—the saboteurs had achieved their purpose. The Government refused to provide the necessary additional time, so only one option was left to the Bill's supporters, who felt that the will of the House should not be thwarted by a tiny minority.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown drew first place in the private Members' motions ballot and announced that he would introduce a motion to give Mr. Powell's Bill extra time. Opponents of the Bill then accused its supporters of abusing the procedures of the House, ignoring the fact that their own abuse of procedure had caused the original problem. Once more, the will of the House was thwarted when, on 7 June, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) moved the writ for the Brecon and Radnor by-election and a number of Members presented petitions of a similar nature, one after the other. The private Members' motion debate was adjourned at 2.30 pm after just 15 minutes of debate. That was scandalous, and many hon. Members expected the Select Committee to deal with the matter in a realistic way.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
As a new and inexperienced Member, I must say that many people of all politics and none in my constituency have said that they wonder how we can continue screaming and yelling at each other at Question Time. I have not been approached on any one issue by more people, including those who disagreed with the Life movement and with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) on the issue of abortion. People wonder how the House of Commons can stand by and allow itself to be sat on by a minority of people making a mockery out of its procedures. It is an insult to democracy.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There have been several attacks on the procedures of the House because of the recent Bill on abortion. Will you confirm that throughout the period when that private Member's Bill was pursued in the House the Standing Orders and procedures of the House were followed? There was no abuse of procedure; there was 780 simply a following of procedure. To attack the procedure as being an abuse is, in fact, an implicit attack on whoever is occupying the Chair, including yourself, Mr. Speaker.
§ Mr. Speaker
I must say on that matter that the procedures were properly carried out. There was no abuse in those terms.
§ Sir Bernard Braine
If the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) had asked me that question through you, Mr. Speaker, I would have given him exactly the same answer. I am complaining about arrangements which caused consternation outside the House and the kind. of reaction to which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) referred. Not only were people complaining to their Members of Parliament, but most of us who were known to be worried about it were receiving vast numbers of letters, and some right hon. and hon. Members had to face demonstrations in and outside their constituencies. There was intense anger about this issue all over the country. My hon. Friend was absolutely right. We witnessed a skilful use of existing weaknesses in our procedure. This debate is to direct attention to those weaknesses and, if possible, to get them remedied.
The Select Committee made some recommendations which I hope will be accepted by the House, namely, Nos. 22 and 23. The latter is extremely important. I am referring to like petitions, one after another, which are presented to take up the time of the House. The Committee, at paragraph 68, said:The right to petition is undoubted.That is a reference to the disgraceful episode on 7 June 1985, but it went on to recommend:if presentation of petitions has not been concluded by 10 am on a Friday when private Members' bills are taken any further petitions set down for that day should be presented, as on other days of the week, immediately before the moving of the adjournment for the purpose of bringing the sitting to a conclusion.If that recommendation were adopted now, there could not be a repetition of what happened in 1985. My complaint is that we are now in 1988 and nothing has been done about behaviour which caused intense anger up and down the country from supporters of all political parties. It is inevitably the only issue upon which the members of the Ulster Unionist party and the Nationalist Opposition in Northern Ireland are completely agreed. It is a matter which brings together hearts and minds across the political divide. It must not be treated in a trivial fashion. It is high time that the House spoke its mind on the subject, which it has not been given the opportunity to do until now.
I would suggest, too, that a private Member whose Bill is first in the debate on a private Members' day should be empowered to move the indefinite suspension of the rule to provide for unlimited debate after 10 pm. It may be argued that, once a proposal of that kind is made, it could lead to all-night sittings, but I do not think so. In the main, the House is composed of reasonable people. The mere threat of a filibuster would soon be removed by the suspension of the 10 o'clock rule. Working on the assumption that each group of amendments would take one and a half hours to debate, it would take a large selection of amendments to force the House to sit all night.
§ Mr. William Powell (Corby)
Are not filibusters which occur on the Floor of the House far more likely to occur in the middle of the night than before 10 o'clock? If there is a suspension of the 10 o'clock rule, it is likely that there 781 will be some very long filibusters by hon. Members who are opposed to the measure that its supporters are trying to advance.
§ Sir Bernard Braine
Let us make some progress in the matter. Of course, one can raise objections of that kind, but I feel that, once it is seen that the House wishes action to be taken, the message will be received.
§ Mr. Alton
I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has been saying. The truth is that there would be votes on closures after one and a half hours, whether it was in the middle of the night or at any other time, and the House could then make progress. Does he agree that it brings us into disrepute when 296 Members can give a Bill a Second Reading, and we can spend 30 hours considering matters in Committee—and we even completed our debate on Report of my own private Member's Bill—but then, in the middle of voting on Report, the clock can strike 2.30 pm and prevent the House from taking any further decision? Does he agree that that makes a mockery of the word "democracy"?
§ Sir Bernard Braine
Of course, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is right, and I would advise my dear friend to note that he is a former Chief Whip. I have been here for many years and I have served in Committees all through the night, so I know how the system works. I feel that it is disgraceful for the House to be embroiled, as it has been, by such filibustering within the rules. I believe that, if we made these simple reforms, the message would be delivered. However, there are ways and means of dealing with those who seek to speak right through the night.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
I have listened to the Father of the House and I am getting his message very clearly. However, it appears that he is basing his argument on one Bill, because that Bill was controversial. There were many hon. Members in the Chamber on that day, and I believe that Members speak in the House on behalf of their constituents. When they want to get in, they contribute. I contributed for 23 minutes the other night because I believed that it was necessary. So the filibustering, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, is a load of rubbish.
§ Sir Bernard Braine
I shall not pursue that. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), for whom normally I have considerable affection, is entitled to his opinion.
§ Sir Bernard Braine
No, I shall not give way. Other hon. Members wish to contribute and I wish now to move to my conclusion.
I want to make a subtle suggestion to my right hon. Friend. I believe that my proposal would assist the Government because it would prevent them from being pressurised—often by their Back Benchers—as they have been and as they will be in the future if there is no reform, into finding additional parliamentary time for a particular Bill. It would also enable the Government to remain strictly neutral towards that Bill. I suggest that the matter should be left to the good sense of the House. For example, since 1975 the majority of hon. Members have wanted to see an end to late abortion and also to abortion virtually on demand, which the supporters of the 1967 Act claimed 782 was never their intention to encourage. It is an outrage that a group of hon. Members who sought to amend the law, in keeping with the original intention of Parliament in 1967, should be denied that right by outdated and undemocratic procedures. It is time for good sense and fairness to prevail. It is time for change.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
Before offering any comments on the procedural reforms before the House, I must express the view that the arrival of television, which is a development that I have opposed and still oppose, will precipitate a whole series of procedural reforms.
The Procedure Committee's reforms that we are examining tonight were all arrived at without any informed consideration of the advent of television, because we were not in a position to do that. A number of the proposed reforms that we have made would have been markedly different if they had been considered in the context of televised proceedings. My view, and I have expressed it in the Procedure Committee, is that, on a number of fronts, we should suspend the amendment of procedure pending the completion of the six-month trial period—if that ever takes place. I hope that it will not.
Our second report of 1985–86 dealt with the allocation of time. I believe that timetabling is correct. From a former position of supporting delay in Committee as a tactic—probably, in truth, it was no more than an inability to budget my own time effectively following my first election to the House—I have moved to a position of outright opposition to the tactic. It is a meaningless and senseless exercise. It is a delusion because, in practice, the Whips have complete control of the timetable. We never create a major obstruction to the Government's programme by using such tactics. Over the years I have sat on many Standing Committees and I have never seen a Bill delayed beyond the date set by the Government. Furthermore, few outside even know what is happening, apart from the lobbies, union observers and too-easily-impressed party activists who are duped into believing that some importance is attached to the exercise.
It is important to retain the right to delay on Report. The loss of a day on Report, or even an overnight debate, is invariably well reported. It is an indication of effective opposition, whether it be a Government rebellion or an Opposition attack. It shows Parliament at its best.
Since the Select Committee last examined the question of shorter speeches, the House has resolved to allow access to television. There can be no doubt that this development will result in demands from Back Benchers for television exposure. For a start, regional coverage of activities on the Floor will turn out to be far more important than national coverage, certainly for the mere mortals amongst us. There will be a marked shift in the weighting of speeches from national to local concerns. The incidence of national coverage for the average Back Bencher will be minimal, whereas regional coverage will become extensive, if only because it offers cheap television for the new franchises under the financial pressure in the new round.
Hon. Members will be in search of a slot, and that can only mean far greater numbers of Members in search of Floor time, and therefore heavy lists for the Speaker to 783 consider. Pressure for shorter speeches is inevitable, and the arrangements approved on 27 February 1986 will be seen as minimal concessions.
The extension of the restriction on Second Readings to full Opposition day debate and full day debates on Government motions has been the subject of an order for the past two Sessions. The Select Committee has proposed the adoption of a permament Standing Order, but I do not believe that that recommendation goes far enough.
There is no reason why nearly all speeches should not be subject to the 10-minute restriction, apart from those by party spokesmen or those by Members moving motions, amendments or new clauses. Such a restriction could endure for most of the parliamentary day from the commencement of public business to the commencement of the Adjournment debate. Such a restriction could be perceived by some as unreasonable and burdensome. However, we should recall that the Speaker would have discretion and, on the desired proportion of our business that was not the subject of pressure, he or she could exercise that discretion.
The only area of difficulty is the Report stage of a Bill. I believe that such business should be exempt from procedural restriction. The Report stage could be the subject of self-regulation prompted by the Whips, who, under conditions of televising, will acquire substantial new influence over events.
Paragraph 5 of the Committee's third report of 1985–86 entered some interesting observations on the value of interventions and the use of prepared speeches. Prepared speeches in the form of written statements, such as the one that I am giving tonight, which are read into the record will make for poor television. I am sure that that will mean changes for many hon. Members.
Interventions are much more of a problem, because they are often crucial to effective debate. I have thought long and hard on this matter and have concluded that, if we do have a 10-minute limit, speakers should not be penalised because of interventions. They should be awarded additional time, perhaps as much as a minute or two. At this stage this proposition may seem a bit sloppy, but I can only reiterate the view that if television comes in it will transform the Chamber and the nature of debate.
I also agree with the recommendation to wind up business in Committee at 10 pm, for the reasons outlined.
The other principal recommendation, which provides for the use of a Business Sub-Committe to fix a "fair terminal date", is extremely complicated. I am not sure that it would work in practice. The proposition appears to provide for a series of negotiated and renegotiated target "terminal dates" for proceedings in Standing Committee. I believe that the terminal date timetabling of Bills, under an alternative option that I am proposing, could be negotiated at Chief Whip level—dependent on arrangements—and, if necessary, occasionally with official Opposition and Government spokesmen in attendance.
The agreement could then be referred to the Business Sub-Committee as proposed in the report for the timetabling of clauses. The cynic, indeed the realist, may argue that the effect of giving the Business Sub-Committee overall control of the "terminal date" would still, under my system, leave the Whips in charge of negotiations and recommendations to Committee. If that is the case, why go through the motions of the Select Committee's recommendations?
784 On a number of occasions I have referred to the rights of Privy Councillors. Our third report of 1985–86 on shorter speeches failed to tackle the question of the rights of Privy Councillors. According to my informants who were on the Committee at that time, the matter was not even raised during the deliberations.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
Forgive me if I am wrong.
Nevertheless, consideration of this matter is an important issue in the light of televising the House. Some of us refuse to accept that Members without portfolios who are Privy Councillors have any greater right to be called in debate than others who equally lack portfolios. I doubt that they have the right even to be called earlier.
With the advent of television, this matter will acquire a new importance. Some of us, certainly I for one, will set about restructuring that privilege. We shall use procedure to secure its removal. I believe that the ending of the privilege will come through an initiative in the Procedure Committee in response to pressure on the Floor of the House. This matter should equally surface as an item on the agenda to be considered by the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House, as it relates to fair play in the allocation of time and opportunities to Members. If my nomination to the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House had not been blocked, I should have dealt with that matter.
My soundings among Conservatives do not suggest any great support for this form of Member advantage and privilege. In fact, a number of Conservatives have privately expressed to me their concern about the possible abuse of Privy Councillor privilege on their Benches. One Conservative Back Bencher referred to a Privy Council hoard on his Benches, comprised of people who are not the Prime Minister's most impassioned admirers.
Some of my cynical hon. Friends might say, "Leave it to them." That has never been my view. The whingeing right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) has never done a blind bit of good for the Labour party. On the contrary, he has only served to convince liberal Tories that they still have a voice at Westminster. Certainly such dissidents grab the headlines and make it more difficult for the Opposition to be seen to be spearheading opposition. I conclude with the view that. Privy Councillors will fight hard to defend the indefensible, but they must be beaten.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)
It seems wrong that there is no equality among right hon. and hon. Members. Being a very junior Member I have less chance of speaking, on behalf of my constituents, even though they are clearly as important as those of a Privy Councillor.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
We are all born equal and should all be treated as equals in this Chamber. The problem is that we are not, and I do not blame you, Mr. Speaker, for that—it is precedent.
I turn to public Bill procedure. Apart from the question of timetabling, there is in the second report of 1984–85 a number of recommendations awaiting debate. Among them is one for reconvening Standing Committees to dispense of undertakings given by Ministers—to which reference was made by our Chairman, and I may say that he has been a very good Chairman—and for the approval of consequential and drafting amendments. It was felt that 785 the recommendation for reconvening Standing Committees would reduce the amount of business to be dealt with on Report.
No doubt there are times when such an arrangement would be helpful, but at others it could be positively unhelpful to the House, which, wishing to debate highly important and contentious legislation, might find that Mr. Speaker's selection of amendments denied debates on issues that the Government had carefully manoeuvred into Committee and possibly away from the cameras.
I come now to the parliamentary calendar. I have few words to express on the subject, having been elected to the Select Committee on Procedure after its consideration. I admit to prejudice against the Canadian precedent that the Committee examined. The position in respect of the Scots must be mentioned. It is untenable, and the recommendation in paragraph 3 of the first report 1986–87 that the House should rise not later than 21 July would be a useful and much needed procedural reform. However, not even that would fully deal with the problems of Scottish Members. The timing of party conferences precludes the earlier resumption of hostilities at the end of the summer recess, but that need not be the case. We have the opportunity to reform, and paragraphs 8, 9 and 10 of the report argue the case very persuasively.
As to use of time on the Floor of the House, the report makes reference to private Members' Bills procedure and the availability of time to right hon. and hon. Members wishing to raise matters of a topical nature. The House will not need much prompting to recognise my objectives. Although it may be said that there are times when a Labour-sponsored private Member's Bill could benefit from the prolonged debate that our proposals recommend, the present position is outrageous—although I fully understand that the beneficiaries of such a procedural warp may feel pleased with the current arrangements. However, in all natural justice they are defending the indefensible.
The argument surfaced in the Committee in all its dishonesty. It had more to do with the arguments about abortion and the embryo than about parliamentary procedure. Those right hon. and hon. Members who sat on the Committee know what I am talking about. It does not augur well for objective discussion of Back-Bench power. When that matter is finally debated on the Floor of the House, I suspect that matters will take a similar turn. It will be interesting to know the position taken by the Leader of the House. Will he propose a reasonable and just approach, defending the rights of Back Benchers in the finest traditions of the House of Commons, or will he oppose our recommendations for tactical reasons? On the last occasion, he always seemed to bring, bear or carry the will of the Prime Minister on these matters to the House of Commons. I am not convinced that he is utterly objective. I know that he will object to my comments, but that remains my view, and I am sure that I am correct.
I understand my own party's difficulty, but hope that the shadow Cabinet will resolve not to oppose but to ignore the recommendation in question and will remain neutral—if it is necessary for the shadow Cabinet to take a decision. Such an approach may not be in the finest traditions, but we should beware of spurious opposition. As the Committee points out in paragraph 61, the 786 Government's progress with Bills is not terminated by Big Ben at 10 o'clock; they simply table a motion to suspend the 10 o'clock rule. No matter what the strength of opposition, the Government are likely to clear the Report stage without much difficulty.
A switch from Friday to Monday for private Members' Bills could possibly secure for them an additional one and a half hours' debate or more. The four half days otherwise given over to private Members' Bills under present arrangements would be consolidated into two full Friday debates. It will be seen from the report that discussion took place on the right of a right hon. or hon. Member to move a business motion at 2.30 pm, providing for additional time after 10 o'clock on private Members' Bills on Mondays. That would transform the chance of a Bill clearing the hurdle of the Report stage. It would mean all-night debates on two private Members' Bills if there had been resistance to their passage, but if there are heated arguments on private Members' Bills, why should the House not sit all night on Monday? If that is the time that it takes to debate contentious legislation, and if it occurs only once or twice a year, we should be willing to afford that time. I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends that we are willing to turn up if we can debate a Report stage overnight and attempt to delay the introduction of legislation and bust the 2.30 pm timetable for the following day. If the motivation exists to do that, it should equally exist to allow proper debate of contentious issues.
§ Sir Peter Emery
Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear that, in order to do that, a right hon. or hon. Member must still carry his motion with majority support in a Division? It is not a simple matter, but, in fairness, a right hon. or hon. Member must have the support of the House for such a motion.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
I shall omit another point that I had wished to raise and turn to the matter of prime time and debating opportunities, which is also dealt with in the second report of 1986–87.
Televising the House has wide implications for prime time. The organisation of Back Benchers on theme issues will require the development of considerable expertise in the Whips' Office. I feel sure that it will respond positively. The Opposition's Whips' Office will certainly do so, just as I expect that of the Government will. I understand that the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House visited Canada to see for itself the one-minute speech procedure. I am led to believe that it is appalling and trivialises issues. However, there is a need for a slot to privide an opportunity for important and topical issues to be raised briefly. The use of the Standing Order No. 20 procedure is an indication of the demand, and that is recognised in the report.
The problem is that the report has produced an ineffective compromise. It provides for two additional Adjournment debates each week, but at what cost? I foresee the loss of private notice questions and of statements in prime time in favour of mini-Adjournment debates answered by Ministers in low-profile time after 10 o'clock, and without the right to question the Minister. The danger is to be found where the recommendation refers to "topical concern" and dissatisfaction with replies, enabling "notice" to be given "for the following day". I alert my colleagues to the danger inherent in that new 787 procedure, which could prove disastrous for Back Benchers. My inclination is to oppose it, although I shall listen with interest to any counter arguments.
The House wil note that I entered a caveat in the form of an amendment to the report. Again, I failed. Some hon. Members not of my political view may have seen advantage. Also among the amendments tabled was my counter proposition, which extracted no support. My amendment did not provide for a ministerial response. I argued that in granting a five-minute Adjournment debate Mr. Speaker could by practice call a Conservative Back Bencher last in the debate. He or she would act as a sweep.
That approach might be novel, but it would certainly have a marked effect on late-night debates, helping to keep the Government on their mettle and fully accountable. It would provide an excellent opportunity for regional television, in an odd way helping to reassert the national context in which the House debates in ordinary time by providing a regional slot, but it would also prevent Ministers from going to the Dispatch Box on what would in effect be 24 or 48-hour notice debates. I believe that you, Mr. Speaker, would find pressure being exerted on you not to grant PNQs, but to ensure that they fell within the mini-Adjournment debates.
I have spoken for 19 minutes. Perhaps I have overshot my time, but I should have liked to talk about a number of other matters. I hope that no precipitate action will be taken, and that no procedural reforms will be introduced in the coming months before the television cameras come in. If television is allowed in, it will transform this place. We shall oppose it, but if introduced it might mean very different reforms.
§ Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
More than three and a half years after the Select Committee on Procedure produced its report "Public Bill Procedure", we are not debating motions to implement any part of it. Once again we are debating on a motion to adjourn; sometimes it is a motion to take note. Three weeks ago, our report was not even available when I tried to obtain a copy. I see that it has been hastily reproduced in almost legible condition by some process other than printing, presumably for this debate, but that is an indication of how much time has already passed since its production.
Some years ago, Mr. Speaker, I asked the Accountant of the House who authorised the expenditure of Select Committees taking evidence outside Westminster but within the United Kingdom. As he could not give me the answer, the matter went to your predecessor, Mr. Speaker Thomas. He and the Accountant had to fall back on a "take note" motion—not a motion to approve—concerning a Procedure Committee report of many years ago. That is the state to which our proceedings have deteriorated. It is lamentable that, even after such a lapse of time, there should be no proposals on which the House can make a decision.
Much emotional energy has been expended on private Bill procedure. I think that an aspect of the fate of the Abortion (Amendment) Bill has a lesson for us. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who was strongly in favour of the Bill, said that it received a large majority on Second Reading. So it did, but not in the form in which it went on Report. You, Mr. Speaker, were put in an impossible position. The Standing Committee had 788 inserted a provision which, had it been in the Bill on Second Reading, might have prevented it from receiving a Second Reading. Under that provision, if a woman had been impregnated in the course of a rape, she could nevertheless be denied an abortion.
I understand the position in which you found yourself, Mr. Speaker. If you had given the House the opportunity to debate a provision that many regarded as iniquitous, it would have meant selecting another amendment. You would then have been accused in certain quarters of killing the Bill by selecting too many amendments. On the other hand, not to debate that provision—to which the Ho use had never agreed on Second Reading—meant that time was running out without any possibility of debating a crucial provision. The sponsors and supporters of the Bill never referred to that when they appeared on television saying how abusive were the proceedings of the House. The promoters of private Members' Bills need to adopt a discipline: all the major ingredients should be in a Bill when it is presented for its Second Reading. Such tricks should not be played on the House.
The composition of the Standing Committee reflects the vote on Second Reading. A favourable Committee can be obtained if provisions on which a majority would not be obtained are not put in before the Committee stage. The House is then denied the opportunity of debating a major provision on the last possible occasion before Third Reading. In such circumstances, among those who are put in an impossible position is the occupant of the Chair.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
I shall not give way to the Father of the House. Too much time—and time is running out—has been spent in discussing the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, although it was necessary for me to allude to it because it illuminates an aspect of private Bill procedure.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
I shall give way when I reach the moment to do so, which has not yet arrived.
The Abortion (Amendment) Bill illuminates the obligations that must repose with those who put forward private Members' Bills within whatever constraints of time apply—and there will always be constraints. I shall now give way to the Father of the House.
§ Sir Bernard Braine
My hon. Friend must not mislead the House. He made a perfectly sound point in his general observations about a different Bill coming to the House at a later stage, but he was wrong in this instance. The Bill's sponsors had decided to take note of speeches made on Second Reading which asked for the Bill to be amended. The amendments were moved by sponsors of the Bill, the aim being to bring back to the House a Bill that had taken account of views expressed on Second Reading. To that extent, the Bill might be regarded as having been improved; it was certainly more sensitive to the feelings of the House. It is wrong to suggest that Mr. Speaker was put in an impossible position. Mr. Speaker presides over a legislative process that allows for amendment.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
If new provisions of a highly contentious nature are inserted into a private Members' Bill in Committee, the sponsors must be naive beyond all 789 possibility if they do not realise that they are going to present the Chair on Report with an impossible dilemma—a dilemma of their making.
I now leave private Members' Bill procedure because I am concerned about the three-and-a-half-year-old report on public Bill procedure that we can just read in its present form. We suggested that there should be more use of Special Standing Committees. That is because the House often legislates on technical matters, with its mind unclouded by knowledge. That is why the Procedure Committee recommended the introduction of that procedure in the first place.
It is one thing to have the procedure—extant as a possibility in Standing Orders—but it does not do anybody very much good if the Government do not make use of the procedure that is extant in Standing Orders. My plea is that it should be more used. I believe that the time spent in Standing Committee on a Bill would then be more tightly focused and more productive, as it would produce good legislation that did not have unintended consequences.
One of the objectives of a Standing Committee on a Bill is to ensure that the Bill achieves the consequences that were intended and does not have consequences that were unintended. One of the virtues of the Special Standing Committee procedure is that those who are more familiar with the subject matter that will be affected by the legislation can give the benefit of their advice, not expressed in party political terms, to the House as a whole. That will also be of benefit in Committee and on Report.
I turn to a much more recent report—only a year and a half old—entitled "Use of Time on the Floor of the House". There is an old adage that nature abhors a vacuum; but nature also gives way to pressure that it cannot sustain. Unless we make more provision for dealing with urgently contentious matters, there will be abuse of the points of order procedure. We know that there has been such abuse. The Procedure Committee's objective would be not to pretend that that abuse would go away, but to see how it could reasonably be accommodated without imposing on the House and those who serve it in so many capacities an even greater and unreasonable prolongation of our sittings.
Our proposal in paragraph 76—that twice a week there should be a short emergency debate chosen by you, Mr. Speaker—was a reasonable attempt to give to the House an alternative to spurious points of order. To those who would reject it, I am bound to say, "What would you put in its place, other than abusing the rules of order?" The pressure is there for all to see and hear. If your Committee's very modest recommendation is to be rejected, Mr. Speaker, it must, in my view, only fairly be rejected in favour of a better alternative, not in favour of nothing whatever.
Reference has already been made to a number of other aspects, but other hon. Members want to speak in the debate, which is already two thirds gone. Therefore, I must ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, whose interest in procedure I know to be authentic, to give us time to take decisions about procedural matters, rather than just to debate them either on a take-note basis or in Adjournment debates. At the end of the day, however, I have this baleful message for him. However often the 790 Select Committee on Procedure sits to try to find ways by means of which the House does not sit at ridiculous hours, when it cannot perform its task appropriately or efficiently, and however many reports it produces, we shall be swamped by legislation unless there is discipline over the introduction of legislation. That, I am afraid, follows, and it is something that only the Cabinet can remedy. It is not within the control of Back-Bench Members of the House.
I used the word "legislation" because about 15 years ago I introduced a Bill, the Amendment of Statutory Instruments Bill. Each year I have weighed on the kitchen scales the bound volumes of Acts of Parliament of the last Session and the bound volumes of statutory instruments. The latter got remorselessly heavier as compared to the former, as well as in absolute terms. The proportion of our legislation which the House is powerless to alter increases each year. Nothing will convince me that it is not the least skilful parliamentary draftsmen who are put on to drafting secondary legislation, because they know that their Minister will not have to defend it against amendments in Committee. Naturally, the more skilled ones are put on to drafting Bills, and the less skilled on to statutory instruments. The absolute bottom of the bucket are put on to drafting legislation subject to the negative resolution procedure, which will probably never come before the House at all for shortage of time.
The House will not have done its task, however hard its Select Committee works, until it grasps the nettle of having a process for amending statutory instruments. Therefore, our first tentative step towards that is recommending a reasoned amendment to be within the power of the appropriate Statutory Instrument Committee. It is a tiny step and a halting one, but for heaven's sake, let us take it.
§ 9.6 pm
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I agree with the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) about the desirability of the House being able to amend statutory instruments. That would be very helpful when we are trying to redress power.
I pay tribute to the work of the Procedure Committee, but it is sometimes too concerned with formal procedures and has not paid enough attention to the informal procedures which run parallel to the formal ones. Members of the Committee have illustrated that tonight by complaining that there has been no opportunity to debate their reports in the House.
Members of the Procedure Committee, almost all of whom are here, with a small number of others, must understand that, if we are to amend the House's procedures, we have to ensure that all 650 Members are involved. Although at least one of the Select Committee's reports is out of print and difficult to get hold of, my impression is that most hon. Members have not looked at its reports. Speaking to a cross-section of hon. Members this week to find out what was to be debated tonight and their views on the subject did not lead to enlightenment for me.
The first problem for the Procedure Committee is to ensure that its reports are fully debated in the informal atmosphere in the House before there is a formal debate. I fear that, with many of its proposals, it has not overcome that first hurdle and got a majority of hon. Members to consider what it proposes.
791 I am a little worried about the parliamentary calendar. An informal calendar already exists, but the problem will not be solved by making it formal. The problem is that the calendar is wrong. If we make the informal calendar formal, we will solve nothing. We will merely give the Opposition an opportunity to say, "We fought very hard and we have wrecked the calendar again this year." That is not much use. The fundamental thing to which the report draws attention is the view that the House should not sit in July.
We ought to recognise, particularly as the average age of hon. Members has got younger, that hon. Members ought to have the right to go away on holiday with their families in July and not have to take their children away from school. The problem is especially acute in Scotland. It is not a matter of a formal or informal calendar, but of the House having the will to reorganise its time so that it does not sit in that part of July.
I now turn to the question whether we should timetable Bills from the start. Let us be clear that, at present, the right to timetable Bills rests with the Opposition when the Bill starts off. In my experience, the Opposition make a good attempt to timetable the Bill effectively. Although it has been argued that some long Bills have gone through the House with discussion on only the first one or two clauses, I believe that, on the whole, those are exceptions. If one looks at the political content of such a Bill, one realises that most of the political issues can be debated on the early clauses. The majority of Bills that go through the House—having been timetabled in effect by the Opposition—go through with reasonable scrutiny, considering the difficulties.
If we chose to have early timetabling for Bills, a series of abuses might arise. I have served on a large number of Committees and I have found amendment races particularly obnoxious. It is important that we should debate amendments at the right place in the Bill. If one has a timetable for amendments, there is a race to table the first amendment. If one tables an amendment to clause 27, for example, and the amendment says, "Insert at the beginning of the clause 'subject to subsection (1)(a)'", someone else will try to table an amendment that will be debated even earlier and that does not lead to orderly debate.
It would be a retrograde step for the House if, as a matter of principle, responsibility for timetabling Bills was handed over from the Opposition to, in effect, the Government. If a Committee which had a majority of Government Members was appointed to timetable Bills, that is what we would be doing. If the Procedure Committee was suggesting that the responsibility should be handed over to a Committee composed of a majority of Opposition Members, I would not complain, but I am sure that Ministers would not be happy with that. I should not be happy about giving the Government more power over timetabling.
I shall now deal with the Committee's report on early-day motions. It seems that the House has not been well served by some of the trivial early-day motions that have appeared on the Order Paper, but the main point is that early-day motions are a public way of reflecting the informal activities of the House. It is not easy to tell constituents that one has had a word with the Minister and pressed the point: it does not sound convincing. Putting one's name on an early-day motion is a simple process, but it is a way of giving some form to the series of informal 792 processes that go on in the House. We often talk about the Division Lobbies, the Members' Lobby and Central Lobby, but we should realise that much of the process of Parliament is the informal lobbying that goes on. Early-day motions offer an opportunity for a formal way of dealing with that informal activity. That is not too high a price to pay.
It was suggested earlier that hon. Members who are suspended should suffer a longer period of suspension than that which is normally imposed. We should be careful about that, because, if suspensions were longer, we should be using the majority in the House to censure individual Members. Hon. Members should be accountable to their constituents and not too firmly accountable to the majority in the House. If suspensions were longer, they would be far more controversial and would cause more problems.
I ask the Leader of the House to use the Special Standing Committee procedure more frequently. I suggest that the forthcoming legislation on children would be a good opportunity to use that procedure.
I welcome the opportunity to amend statutory instruments. At present, we are too often prepared to put into primary legislation the power for the Secretary of State to do things by order and by regulation. If the House were less willing to give Ministers that power in the first place, fewer problems would develop.
Finally, I should like the Leader of the House to think about the problems that occur with statements, especially if our proceedings are to be televised. It is not a satisfactory procedure for embargoed copies of White Papers and other documents to be given out to the lobby and to other newspaper correspondents, sometimes 24 hours beforehand and often on the morning of the day on which the statement is to be made, and then for Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen and minority parties to receive the same statements and documents perhaps just half an hour or an hour before the statement is made, but no of her Members being able even to get hold of a copy until after the statement has been made.
If it is reasonable for journalists to be sufficiently briefed on matters so that they can write about them for the following morning's newspapers, it is reasonable that hon. Members should have the same opportunity to read the documents and ask questions about them. There is the procedure of the statement being given in the House, but there is often a wait of several weeks or months—sometimes even years—before there is a further opportunity to discuss those matters. It should be possible for hon. Members to receive such documents on at least the same terms as journalists.
There should be far more debate about most of the proceedings of the Select Committee on Procedure. Such debate should occur in an informal atmosphere first, and once there is a clear majority in the House for change, we should proceed with the legislation. We should not bemoan the fact that such things are not debated on the Floor of the House. What we should bemoan is the fact that the Procedure Committee has not convinced sufficient hon. Members to take an interest in its reports for there to be a full and frank informal debate before we get to the stage at which we should vote.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you know, Mr. Speaker, I have been busy this evening, which is why I missed the first part 793 of the debate. I have been trying to win Weybridge for the Labour party, which is why I wrote to you. Could you appeal to hon. Members to make their contributions brief so that I can get in?
§ Mr. Speaker
I was about to rise to my feet when the hon. Gentleman gazumped me to say that I understand that the shadow Leader of the House will seek to catch my eye at about a quarter to 10. Quite a number of hon. Members have not yet spoken—some of whom served on the Committee—but I think it is quite important in such a debate that Members who did not serve on the Committee are also called to speak so that we may have their views as well.
§ Sir Ian Lloyd (Havant)
I hope that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) will forgive me if I do not follow too closely the specific points that he made. This is one of our more interesting debates, in which the currents of controversy move not across the Floor of the House like forked lightning, but up and down the Benches on either side rather like sheet lightning. The balance of opinion is sometimes rather interesting, if much more difficult to predict than usual. I shall resist the temptation to enter into the important, but in some ways private, fight that the Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir. B. Braine), has reinstated this evening.
However, I shall permit myself one reflection on the important procedural point that has been discussed in considerable depth. If the exploitation of procedure within the rules of order—it must always be within the rules of order because that is a fundamental premise—to oppose legitimate proposals, whether in the form of legislation or otherwise, is to be ruled out, we face a difficult problem. Naturally, like so many other hon. Members of all parties, I dislike such exploitation whenever it occurs. Furthermore, the public do not understand it and I do not think that they will ever. We must be extremely careful before we tighten the straitjacket of procedure on this House so severely that the patient—in this case Parliament—is suffocated. Having said that, I realise that to some extent I am undermining my own case on a number of the other points that I hope to make as briefly as I can.
I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) for his report—indeed, for all his serious reports. I have read most of them this afternoon and find myself in considerable agreement with a large proportion of their recommendations.
I share the regret of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) that we are not debating specific proposals placed before the House for decision. As is so often the case, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House showed his usual courtesy and consideration and raised a fundamental point about procedure—the behaviour of hon. Members. My perspective is nowhere near as long as that of the Leader of the House or as long as that of many other hon. Members, but perhaps it is a little longer than the perspective of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).
A long perspective does not necessarily confer authority, except in your case, Mr. Speaker, because you 794 sit in the House for thousands of hours a year. Perhaps you spend more time in it than any other hon. Member, and therefore your perspective gives you special authority. Within the last few years the standard of behaviour in the House has declined. There has been a decline in courtesy, in good manners and, perhaps, a decline in that rarest of all commodities in this Chamber, wit.
§ Mr. Banks
I have with me a book by Sir Alexander Mackintosh entitled, "Echoes of Big Ben." It says:I trembled for the fame and fate of Parliament as I witnessed the extremely violent, disgraceful scene, in July, 1893, of hon. Members hitting each other.The hon. Member for Havant (Sir I. Lloyd) has been in the House for a long time. Can he tell us when hon. Members last hit each other? That certainly puts into perspective the rather eccentric behaviour of my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) who left the House earlier today describing hon. Members as disciples of Onan and making strange gestures to Mr. Speaker.
§ Sir Ian Lloyd
Hon. Members hitting each other is not within my experience, and I hope that it will never be. It is always a little dangerous to quote from a decade in which, I think, Irish Members came here in an attempt to destroy Parliament. Fortunately for all of us, they failed. I will not go as far as to say that such an objective underlay the behaviour that we have seen, but Parliament serves no purpose whatever if none of us modifies our views or assumptions. Surely we come to the House to listen and to enlarge our experience and knowledge and, occasionally, to modify our assumptions and opinions. We cannot do that if we can never hear what anyone is saying.
I shall describe two phenomena which I am sure are familiar to all hon. Members. The House contains what I call the "What about" mob. That mob consists of hon. Members who say, "What about the IMF? What about inflation? What about unemployment, nurses and miners?" Such interventions are not worthy of a soap box debate in Hyde park and are singularly unworthy of the House. Surely we can bring to our debates qualities and standards better than, "What about?" Such behaviour denigrates and destroys what we are trying to do.
The other phenomenon is the finger-pointing mafia. Some hon. Members seem to think that their intellectual arguments are enhanced by stabbing their fingers at Front-Bench spokesmen. That is bad mannered and does not add to the point or force of the argument. The less we see of it the better and the more Parliament will be pleased. When television arrives in due course the public will not want to see such behaviour because they would not like it at all.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
The hon. Gentlemen is complaining about mafia-like people pointing their fingers at the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. When I stand up with my hands in my pockets it is more than likely that one of the Tory yobbos from the goose-stepping tendency will tell me to take my hands out of my pockets. I am in a bit of a dilemma about what to do. If I were concerned about behaviour in this place, I would not be concerned about people making a point on 795 behalf of their class. I would be concerned about those who come trotting in here half drunk or half sober, whatever the case may be, coming out of the 16 bars, or trotting off on business trips to South Africa, paid for by the Botha Government. I regard that as much more important than somebody who has his hands in his pockets or who is poking a finger at others when he speaks.
§ Sir Ian Lloyd
The hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand my point. I sympathise with him if he is being shouted at by Members who tell him to take his hands out of his pockets, but I am not concerned about people who come here half sober or half drunk. I am much more concerned about people who come here half-witted.
The report on the calendar is interesting. It tells us that it is now over 10 years since the House had two weeks' recess at Easter or Whitsun, and the proposal that it makes for setting the calendar recommends that we should have a least one week at Easter and one week at Whitsun. I disagree with the Committee on that point. It is time that we became somewhat more generous to ourselves, particularly at Whitsun. I do not know what the opinion of the House is on that question, but I should happily trade 10 days in October for five additional days at Whitsun, and I sense that that finds some support in the House.
The real difficulty is this. We shall find more time—time lies at the heart of Parliament and much that we do here—if we spend a little more effort in trying to stop the waste of it. Parliamentary time, like energy, is something which is best found by conserving it. For example, I regard the second Division last night as a conspicuous example of the waste of 20 minutes of parliamentary time. It proved nothing to anyone and by the most simple procedural device, every point could have been satisfied. You, Mr. Speaker, could have asked the Liberals whether they would be willing to record their 20 votes against the majority. All that would have been needed would have been a yes, the Division would have been recorded and the great British public would have been none the wiser, or all the wiser. There would have been no fundamental difference to what we were doing.
Other points, which I wish to make as quickly as possible, also concern time. In the report on the use of time on the Floor of the House, the key conclusion is that in paragraph 2, which states:Compared with legislative bodies in other large democracies, the House of Commons continues to sit on more days per annum than any others.That prompts the immediate query: Are we, as a country, for that reason better governed than the other large democracies? Different sides of the House will have different opinions in answer to that question. The report concludes:there needs to be the greatest possible efficiency in the use of the available time.I wholeheartedly agree with that.
What are the facts? We waste time on a prodigious scale, and no more seriously than in four particular ways. The first, which has already been mentioned, is bogus points of order. We can do with far fewer of them and if, by other means, we can give hon. Members legitimate opportunities to raise legitimate points, we should do so and encourage them to do it in other ways.
Secondly, there is the tedious introduction of largely, or often, irrelevant parochial aspects and illustrations in hon. 796 Members' speeches. We are all guilty of that. It seldom adds much to the debate or to the quality of the argument. We could all impose a greater self-discipline there.
Thirdly, there is the tedious repetition of arguments. Theoretically, this is against the rules of order, but it is seldom that anyone is pulled up for tedious repetition. We are all guilty of it and we should all do it less frequently. We are all guilty of introducing, ad nauseam, fallacies and assumptions that cannot be sustained.
Fourthly, there is the question of voting. Here lies the greatest possible scope. We do not practise what I believe is widely practised now in all other managerial systems outside and possibly even inside politics. That is known as management by exception. The vote that matters is that which is decided by the electorate once every four to five years. That is the vote that makes the greatest impact on the nation and its affairs. Very occasionally, and particularly if the balance between the governing party and the Opposition is small, a vote is challenged or altered by a profound disagreement within the Government or the Opposition. Occasionally, there is such a thing as a procedural ambush. That is increasingly rare, especially when the Government have a substantial majority. It can be challenged by accidental absence, for example, by a significant number of Members being delayed on a plane from Scotland to London.
However, in my humble judgment, the nation is not interested in those changes, except when Governments are threatened or defeated; that is when the parliamentary balance no longer reflects the general election ballot. Those are the divisions in which the nation is really interested. If we alter our procedures in such a way as to give the nation what it wants, which is a full and proper report on those occasions, we can save ourselves an enormous amount of time on many of the other Divisions that take place here. By and large, the media are uninterested in whether our majority is 150, 100 or 50. The evidence of this is that those Divisions are seldom reported, apart from the particular examples that I have mentioned.
We have no management by exception when we should have such management. We assume a Government majority, but we could allow far more efficient procedures to reveal variations rather than reassert meaningless totals. There are many ways of achieving that and I shall simply mention two of them. First, there are the non-electronic methods. There is no need, for example, on a second Division late at night to troop through the Division Lobbies. I believe that your discretion, Mr. Speaker, and direction to record the vote of minor parties would have achieved every objective except that of wasting time.
Where there are several Divisions and we are bound to record identical votes, we can easily amalgamate them, without prejudice to anyone, least of all the Opposition. That applies to amendments, substantive motions and Third Readings where there may be three votes one after another. We all know that, plus or minus two or three votes, the identical Division will be recorded, and that we will have wasted 50 minutes of the House's precious time, which, as the Procedure Committee admits, we need for other purposes.
Finally, I must at least mention the fact that we largely ignore the significant potential of electronic devices. It now seems possible for any hon. Member to leave a completely secure coded vote in the system, which can be withdrawn 797 immediately on demand or cancelled by telephone. That technical possibility may seem far-fetched, but we should consider the contribution that it could make.
Late sittings have been much discussed. The House should consider the 10 o'clock rule in a fundamental way. The Procedure Committee suggested that hon. Members do not often refer to that or vote against it, but I regard that argument as specious. We do not vote against the suspension of the 10 o'clock rule for the simple reason that we know that the Government would win every Division on that type of vote. It is rather futile as the Government would always outvote us.
I very much agree with the Study of Parliament Group's trenchant comment thatproceedings in the chamber should comprise those on which Members are most anxious to exercise their rights to attend, speak and vote.The group concludes thatthe chamber could be spared even more secondary legislation, most debates on European Community Documents and, more significantly, the remaining stages of much legislation and more Second Readings. It could therefore become the rule that business such as secondary legislation and EC Documents would always be dealt with in Committee unless specifically brought to the Floor of the House by government, by opposition parties on an Opposition Day or by backbenchers on a Private Members' day.I heartily commend that conclusion to the House.
§ Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)
Regardless of the political colour of the Government, our democracy is in a crisis, both within this place and outside. That is seen to be so by many outside the House because of a number of actions that the Government are taking. The same applies to those who are within the House. Throughout our society we see the overwhelming and overbearing influence that is being brought to bear both inside and outside the House. The procedures of the House, which we are now debating, are being used in a way that reflects the contempt that Governments in general, but this one in particular, hold for what is nominally the legislature.
There has been no serious attempt to reform the way in which this place works. That is because basically it works to the advantage of this Government, perhaps more than it has worked to the advantage of any Government in the past. When television cameras come into the Chamber and viewers see the way in which the Government manipulate Parliament, there will be tremendous revulsion. The same can be said of any party which forms a Government, but the Conservative party and the present Government have demonstrated so clearly the problems that a Parliament without power faces when it is faced with an Executive that exercises no restraint.
There is a great deal more that the Opposition could do to highlight the problems and to produce a serious alternative to the way in which our democracy currently does not work. Unfortunately, there are two camps within the Opposition. There are those who say, "We'll give them some stick when we get in next time. We don't want any changes because we can be just as authoritarian. We can abuse our democracy in equal measure." I do not agree with that view. Secondly, there are those who feel that, if we were to make serious changes to our processes and procedures, their little niche, speciality or maverick ability 798 in this, that or the other area would fall prey to a wider democracy. Both camps are wrong. I hope that tonight's debate will cause one or two of their members to think afresh about the wider values that we Socialists should promote.
We must examine the role of the House of Commons in a democracy. How do we expect the House to move forward so that it can play a serious role in our democracy? How can it extend its ability to hold Government to account? If there ever was a golden age, how can we re-invent the ability to scrutinise government? No outsider, no impartial judge, would say that we in this place effectively hold our Government to account. That can be said of Governments of whatever political colour.
Perhaps we need to go far further than the reforms proposed by the Procedure Committee in the many reports that are before us. We should move on to consider the separation of powers, a written constitution, a Bill of Rights and the wholesale reform of the judiciary before we can seriously tackle the inability of this place to hold the Government to account. That will have to wait for another debate and another day.
One of the several problems that has emerged during the debate is that a number of hon. Members have concentrated their sudden desire for procedural reform to make Parliament effective on one bad experience that they personally underwent during consideration of the Abortion (Amendment) Bill 1987. I do not believe that they do the cause of parliamentary reform any good whatsoever by suddenly discovering that there are problems with the private Member's Bill procedure and suddenly griping that there have been difficulties.
§ Mr. Allen
I do not know about individual cases, but there certainly has not been a massive groundswell on those issues over many years. People have suddenly discovered it because of the issue that was raised last year.
Like every other debate on a Select Committee report—there have been only five on substantive motions since 1979, even though there have been almost 400 reports—after tonight's debate there will be no vote. This has merely been a talking shop exercise. If the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, will allow me, I suggest that it may be an error in the Procedure Committee reports that they contain no proposal that a specified number of Committee reports should, as of right, come back to the Floor of the House for a decision. Under such a system, a number of the hon. Gentleman's recommendations would have been voted upon. Until we link the system of Select Committees to the Floor of the House, those Committees will be divorced from real accountability and scrutiny by the Government.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
Why only a proportion? If the House sets up a Committee to consider something, surely that presupposes that the Committee should come back with proposals and the House should vote on them. Otherwise, what is the point of setting up the Committees in the first place?
§ Mr. Allen
My hon. Friend expresses his own view, and I do not wish to comment on his remarks.
Parliament is letting down democracy, as it is not fulfilling its role. Perhaps I come to this debate with some naivety as I am a new Member. However, I hope that that also means that I bring a fresher eye to this problem. I hope also that my commitment to this issue is in no doubt. It is something of a chore, I may tell the Leader of the House, to have to go to the Table Office every day to table my motions on the Order Paper, despite the welcome that I always get there. However, I have spent a year tabling my motions in an attempt, as Conservative Members said earlier, to bring this issue to the fore and get, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said, a number of hon. Members interested in this area. This is not an arcane and esoteric area. It is an area of parliamentary reform which is vital to the ability of our democracy to take decisions effectively, to inform people outside, and, above all, to hold the Government to account.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce
Perhaps it is rather surprising that the hon. Gentleman and I, as new Members with a fresh view, share the opinion of the Privy Councillors who have spoken this evening and believe that a change in the procedure is long overdue. Surely it must be right that the Government should find time to bring forward as soon as possible substantive proposals that we can vote on to change the procedure.
§ Mr. Allen
The Government will not find time to change the House, given that the House serves the Government's purpose. Until the House reasserts its independence from Government, I see no prospect of these matters being brought to a decision. None the less, they must be brought to the attention of hon. Members. I have continually tabled motions which appear as remaining orders of the day. Perhaps one day Mr. Speaker will surprise me by selecting one. I hope that that happens on a day when I am in attendance—as I usually am. Please do not surprise me, Mr. Speaker, by selecting one on an odd day when I am not here.
I have proposed that speeches in all debates should be limited to 10 minutes: that is self-explanatory. They should be timed by another clock in the Chamber that can be stopped so that interventions are not taken out of the 10 minutes. That would encourage debate as hon. Members would be very willing to give way and pursue points knowing that they would not lose any time out of their 10 minutes.
The point that all hon. Members should be treated equally in debate has been touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). I fully endorse his proposals about Privy Councillors. A list of speakers should be available before each debate so that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) would not have to come back half-expecting to be called to speak tonight. He would have been able to phone in and find out, and listen at leisure when he arrived.
Timetables should be introduced for all Bills. The theory of timetables is that the Government get their Bill at the end of the day, and they know the day on which that Bill will come out of Committee. But in Committee the timetabling of the Bill should be the possession of the Opposition, and they should choose the areas to be scrutinised in greatest depth.
800 A number of hon. Members have mentioned dates of sittings. Special Standing Committees are becoming increasingly important. Given the cursory examination that Bills receive, there should be a period of one month between First and Second Reading so that there can be examination outside of the clauses of the Bill.
Finally, Committees of the House should be allowed to come to the Floor of the House by right to present at least one report each year so that there is a connection between the Committee system and the Floor of the House. The Leader of the House kindly raised the question of hours, so I shall not spend any time on that. Tonight's debate has been helpful, but it would be far more helpful if the Leader of the House agreed that decisions as well as speeches should be forthcoming.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
I was hoping that at least one novelty would be proposed tonight. I would suggest the installation of polygraph lie detectors in both Dispatch Boxes. That would he to the advantage of the public and Back Benchers and to the disadvantage of Front Benchers on both sides. However, no such novelties have been proposed today.
If we consider what are normally regarded as the proper functions of a Parliament, we are not too bad at the redress of individual grievances; but everyone has to accept that we are not too smart at scrutinising the activities of the Executive, we are absolutely deplorable at controlling Government expenditure, and we have not been too good at producing understandable, workable laws.
During the past two or three years, it has not been the practitioners in the field who are unable to understand the law. In view of the successful court actions against the Government, particularly in local government finance and social security, it is clear that some of the Ministers who introduced the Bills did not understand them and broke the law fairly soon after they were enacted. In those circumstances, I do not think that we are doing too well in the production of understandable law.
One aspect of Parliament that tends to be ignored—the Select Committee, at least in some ways, tended to set it to one side—is our function as a place for free expression of opinion, where people are allowed to express their views and conduct campaigns within a political arena. I hope that no one will take offence when I say that I feel that the Select Committee has taken rather a managerial approach to this place, and in some sense there has been a lot of effort to depoliticise it, as if one of the Committee's objects was the smooth operation of the House. That is not always the case.
I do not want to talk about short speeches, other than to say that you, Mr. Speaker, should be empowered to impose a time limit from 6 pm to 9 pm, if you so wished, rather than from 6 pm to 8 pm or from 7 pm to 9 pm. That would definitely be an advantage.
The Select Committee made proposals for allocating time to Government Bills in Committee. In fact, not many Bills end up being guillotined—although, because of the sanguinary activities of the Leader of the House, during the last Session more Bills were guillotined than in any other Session in the history of Parliament. However, the number was still only six, so we are not reduced to guillotining Bills too frequently. Most Bills go through Committee as both sides expect; only the most 801 controversial of Bills do not. I am doubtful about the idea that a Committee should self-guillotine, fairly quietly and without much publicity. It is generally to the advantage of the Opposition to insist that if the Government want very controversial measures to go through quickly, at some point in the proceedings they must come to the Floor of the House and face adverse publicity.
Last Session we forced the Government to guillotine the Social Security Bill; the result was 140 column inches of newspaper coverage, mostly unfavourable to the Government. That was useful and worth while. It is a stick with which all Oppositions should be able to beat Governments, and to do so in public rather than reaching agreement upstairs.
The Select Committee recommended changes in the rules governing debates on statutory instruments. What strikes me as peculiar is that, four or five years after a Bill has been passed, no one has the faintest idea why it was thought to need the affirmative procedure. The belief is that the affirmative procedure applies to important matters and the negative procedure to less important matters. The fact is that what might appear to be important while a Bill is going through often turns out to be relatively trivial two or three years later.
The present rules for deciding whether statutory instruments should be dealt with on the Floor of the House or upstairs are probably better than the Select Committee's proposals. Much more important is the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) about the willingness of the House to allow important parts of legislation to be sloughed off into regulations when they should be on the face of the primary legislation. If we do not jib at putting such important matters into regulations rather than into primary legislation, the question whether they are dealt with on the Floor of the House or upstairs is trivial. I share the doubts of the Leader of the House about the wisdom of taking a substantial chunk of prime time at 3.30 pm for procedural wrangles about what should happen to particular statutory instruments. Neither side would benefit from such a use of parliamentary time.
A matter of much more consequence is whether it should be possible for the House to amend statutory instruments. Anyone can recognise the advantages of being able to do so. There might be a possibility—although I understand that it is not what the Select Committee is proposing—of identifying groups of extremely significant pieces of secondary legislation that could be amendable, but not to make secondary legislation in general amendable. That might go some way towards alleviating concern about the really poor level of draftsmanship to which the hon. Member for Honition (Sir P. Emery) referred.
Our present parliamentary calendar is ludicrous and has been determined by a hangover from when the House was run by country gentry. There are few of those left in the House, although there are a number of lawyers. We need an altogether different parliamentary calendar. If that necessitated the major constitutional change of shifting the party conferences to another time of year so that we could spread out our time more sensibly, perhaps we should consider doing that. Even within existing 802 arrangements, it would be advantageous to most people to have some kind of parliamentary calendar, rather than conduct our affairs in our present haphazard way.
It is clear that, whatever we decide about the parliamentary calendar, in the end the Government will always be able to amend it if they are desperate. I cannot see many Opposition Members saying, "By God, we've triumphed this time. We've forced them to smash the parliamentary calendar to such an extent that we shall all meet on Christmas day." That will not normally be one of our objectives.
It appears to me that it would be easier for you, Mr. Speaker, and for practically every hon. Member, if we had a calendar set out in advance, and, by and large, the Government made us stick to it.
While we have our present approach to parliamentary government, the Government will always be able to fix what happens in the Chamber. [Interruption.] I believe that the Whip has misunderstood the amount of time for which the Leader of the House has asked.
I believe that in general the propositions before us are rather managerial in their approach. In line with what my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) suggested, we need a more radical change to the way in which the House goes about its tasks, because we are still obsessed with 18th-century French ideas that in some way or another the House of Commons controls the Government.
The fact is that, once a Government have a majority, the Government control the House of Commons. As long as we fail to recognise that basic point, most of the propositions from the Procedure Committee will not have a substantial impact on what happens in the House or how we carry on our business. We need to start from an altogether different proposition. If we want the Procedure Committee to produce the radical changes in procedure which my party believes in, we must give it a more radical role altogether. We cannot criticise it for producing the propositions that are before us, because no one has asked it to be especially radical.
§ Mr. Wakeham
With the permission of the House, I shall say a few words.
Because of the late start to the debate and the number of Members who wished to speak, I believed that it was better not to make a substantive reply on the issues, but to hear as many hon. Members as possible. I know that a number of hon. Members did not get into the debate. The debate was held on the Adjournment so that views could be expressed, and I cannot complain if I received some pretty strong views from a number of quarters, because that was the purpose of the exercise. It is clear that virtually any change to our procedures is considered controversial by one part of the House or another. I shall seek to find some general agreement and see whether we can make some progress.
Other matters have arisen in the debate that the Select Committee on Procedure might like to consider further and to give us some guidance on.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I believe that the hon. Gentleman spoke with considerable authority and experience of opposition, which is an important part of the balance of this House.
I shall study tonight's speeches carefully. I also hope that the overwhelming majority of Members who did not take part in this debate will also study them, because what we do will also depend upon them.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.