§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Patnick.]4.43 pm
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)
I hope that I can give some idea of the spirit in which I approach the debate by saying that I hope—subject, of course, slightly to the will of the House—to conform in my speech today with the recommendation in the report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House that both Government and Opposition Front-Bench speeches should, if possible, be confined to 20 minutes. I shall do my best to restrict myself to that ration.
The purpose of today's debate is to provide an opportunity for the House to express its views on the report from the Committee so excellently chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). He brought to that task the experience acquired through many years of service in the House, including not only senior ministerial office but, not least, a time as Chief Whip. I remember that time clearly, because I was then probably the most junior Government Whip. I learned a great deal from my right hon. Friend. He now joins that select band whose name becomes so firmly associated with a report that almost no one can remember its formal title. Indeed, if all goes as he would wish, there may even be pressure to erect a statute to him in some part of the building. [Interruption.] I am not making a commitment this afternoon.
The previous debate on 2 March gave the previous House an early opportunity to express its views on the report. In replying on that occasion, my predecessor, to whom I also pay tribute for his initiative in proposing the appointment of the Committee and his input to it, said that there would need to be further detailed consideration of the recommendations. But he also underlined his view that the opinion of the new House would also have to be taken into account before any firm decisions were made about how the issue should be taken forward. I believe that he was right to express that view.
After all, this Parliament is barely three months old. There have been many changes in its membership. New Members are still coming to grips with the premises, the customs and the existing procedures. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said in opening the earlier debate:when considering altering parliamentary procedure, it is important to seek to do it on the basis of concensus".—[Official Report, 2 March 1992; Vol. 205, c. 74.]That is an important point. The proposals in the report are more far-reaching than is realised in some quarters. I shall develop that point later. However, I make no apology for maintaining the view that the new House of Commons should have the chance to have a wide-ranging discussion before we attempt to table substantive motions.
It is all the more important that the new House should discuss the matter because, as my predecessor said in his evidence to the Committee and in his speech in the previous debate, changes will not work without the co-operation of the House as a whole. If they are to work in practice, it is essential that the whole House understands what is involved in operating on the basis proposed by the report and that we can be sure that there is support 834 throughout the House for making the changes work. However, we can draw some encouragement—perhaps a lot of encouragement—from the fact that the report of the Committee was unanimous.
Before I turn to specific recommendations, it may be helpful to give a brief over-view of the report. The recommendations go far wider than merely reducing the hours that the House sits. In an attempt to find a reduction in hours which could be delivered, the Committee has made recommendations affecting the timing and handling of Government business as well as Private Members' business.
The most important of the Committee's recommendations could be crisply listed as follows: to sit on Wednesday from 10.30 am without interruptions, to take Private Members' business other than Private Members' Bills until 2.30 pm; to take 10 Fridays a session as non-sitting days, to provide much-needed extra time for MPs' constituency duties; to finish at 7 pm on the Thursdays before the non-sitting Fridays; to take only non-controversial business—a point which raises difficult issues—after 7 pm on all other Thursdays; to restrict fairly considerably the circumstances in which the House would sit beyond 10 pm on any day, even on Government business; and to provide for the automatic timetabling of all Government Bills.
It may be helpful if I indicate how I hope to proceed. I propose in the next few minutes to set out, I hope in reasonable detail, the Government's thoughts on the recommendations in the report. I will then, as I hope I need hardly say, pay close attention to the views expressed in the debate, with a view to identifying a basis for agreement, which can then be discussed through the usual channels, with the aim of being in a position to table some substantive resolutions at an early stage after the House resumes in the autumn. I should, however, emphasise that many of the recommendations would involve complex Standing Order amendments which may not be easy to frame.
§ Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)
Is the Leader of the House sure that he interpreted the report correctly when he said that it proposed the timetabling of all Bills? Surely the proposal was for timetabling Bills other than those taken on the Floor of the House.
§ Mr. Newton
My understanding is that the report envisaged timetabling of Government Bills generally. If the right hon. Gentleman, who is experienced in such matters, takes a different view, undoubtedly he will elaborate it during the debate.
The House may appreciate my next point, which is partly directed at those who examine our proceedings from outside. It seems important to view the report and the matters with which it deals not simply as a question of shorter sitting or working hours. There is far more to it than the prospect of earlier rising, some morning sittings, or what in some quarters might be seen as Fridays off. The proposals in the report need to be seen in the context of the overall demands made on Members of Parliament.
A Member's time is not spent solely in the Chamber, in Committee or at Westminster—important though those aspects of the role are. As the report makes clear, one significant change in the pressure on the average Member has occurred in what is expected of him or her in constituency work and duties. We are talking about the 835 balance between different aspects of the job, rather than seeking to make it entail less work overall, and it is important that we should emphasise that in our discussions.
The report draws attention to the principle of balance between Government, Opposition and Back Benchers. I emphasise in particular, as does the report, that the Government of the day, whatever their colour, should have a reasonable expectation of getting their reasonable business. That means that they must have sufficient time, or procedures must be so arranged, for them to implement the commitments on which they are elected, and their programme as set out in the Queen's Speech each Session.
But that—this is no less important—must be balanced by the right of the House, groups in it, Members and, in particular, of the Opposition to have a proper opportunity to scrutinise and, where they wish, to oppose Government business, especially legislation.
Our procedures rest on a balance between those considerations. It is a delicate balance, in which the use of time and the scope for delay have sometimes been seen as the Opposition's main weapons. It follows that that change must be carefully balanced if we are to maintain the basic democratic values which our procedures exist to protect.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
It is not merely the main weapon. Often, as the right hon. Gentleman knows very well, it is the only weapon of the Opposition. Is that not a charter for the castration of the Opposition?
§ Mr. Newton
The hon. Gentleman is very familiar with the procedures and techniques of the House. He is expressing a view about one of the propositions underlying the report. I note that, and shall be interested to find out whether it is followed by other hon. Members from either side of the House.
Thus the Government's basic approach to the report is that, if the legitimate need of the elected Government to progress and have enacted their legislative programme and to secure their other essential business is accepted, and appropriately reflected in the procedures of the House, the Government would be more than happy for the working practices of the House to become more civilised—I suppose that that is one way to describe it—in terms of hours of work, and in other ways.
The central equation cannot be ignored, however, and the House needs to go into that with its eyes open and to appreciate the implications. If there is to be less time, proceedings will have to be more structured, debate may be less open-ended and the scope for obstruction could become more limited—which picks up the point that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) just raised.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Is not the biggest obstacle to changing the hours in this place, perhaps to 9 to 5, the fact that more than 200 Members of Parliament—who happen mainly to be Tory Members—have moonlighting jobs, making money in the boardrooms and the law courts? They cannot afford Parliament regularly to start at 9 in the morning because they want to be able to come here when it suits them, when they have finished in the City or the law courts, and to vote at 7 or 10 o'clock. That is the basic problem. It is not a question of merely playing around at the edges. The real problem is stopping moonlighting. Then we could get some regular hours.
§ Mr. Newton
It will not surprise the House to know that I do not readily accept the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of the reasons for our existing procedures. Incidentally, it is also important to recognise, although it is not universally the case in all Parliaments which might be compared with this one, that members of the Executive—Ministers—are also Members of Parliament, it is an important feature of the way in which our Parliament and our democracy work, and has some relationship to the issue that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) raised.
§ Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)
Some of us are getting heartily sick of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) constantly talking such rubbish. Most Conservative Members work just as hard as he does—[HON. MEMBERS: "Harder."] Most of us work harder in one respect at least, because most of us are members of Committees. I am on five Committees, whereas the hon. Member for Bolsover refuses to serve on them.
§ Mr. Harris
That must have been an exception. In general, the hon. Member for Bolsover refuses to serve on Committees, which is where much of the work of the House is done.
§ Mr. Newton
I am sure that it was clear from the response to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) that many hon. Members, certainly on the Conservative side of the House, have some sympathy with his arguments. My aim in responding to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was to seek—so far without avail—to keep the temperature down in the interests of rational discussion of the proposals.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Janet Fookes)
Order. I am not clear to whom the Leader of the House was giving way, as an hon. Gentleman rose from each side.
§ Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)
Surely my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) raised an important matter. Many Members of the House, principally those on the Conservative Benches, have outside employment, and that is one reason why there is so much opposition to morning sittings. Will the Leader of the House give his view on the widespread use of outside employment by Members of Parliament?
§ Mr. Newton
I cannot add to my remarks in response to the hon. Member for Bolsover a few moments ago. It is by no means the case that Members on one side of the House alone combine a range of different roles, both in respect of their position as Members of Parliament and in other ways. By and large, those different responsibilities interact in a way that benefits the House and the service that Parliament provides.
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
Has my right hon. Friend noticed that today is significant because the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has graced us with his 837 presence, even though it is out of prime television time? Does my right hon. Friend think that the hon. Gentleman's constituents might be interested to note that, whereas most of us are prepared to work in Select and Standing Committees and to spend time researching our contributions to them, all that the hon. Member for Bolsover looks forward to is £30,000 a year for a nine-to-five job?
§ Mr. Newton
As I said, one of my hopes is to try to keep the temperature down in the debate, although that hope looks a little forlorn. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand if I do not follow him. Nevertheless, I note his remarks carefully.
§ Mr. Peter Hain (Neath)
I appreciate the desire of the Leader of the House to keep the temperature low. If we were designing Hours for the House, starting afresh in a modern parliamentary democracy, which is what we are supposed to be, is it conceivable that we would come up with the antiquated, anachronistic and ridiculous hours that we now sit?
§ Mr. Newton
It is difficult for me to say. I plead the basic proposition that I sought to make in response to his hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett), who is sitting beside the hon. Gentleman. Experience from various quarters such as local government, business, trade union activities and being a teacher—whatever it may be—is a considerable help to Members when they perform their duties in the House, as constituency Members of Parliament and in other ways. It would not be sensible if the continuation of that experience were cut off as soon as people became Members of the House. Our proceedings would be the loser if we went down that path.
§ Mr. Newton
I shall, but one of the reasons why I wryly referred to my aim of keeping my speech to 20 minutes is being revealed—that interventions make it singularly difficult to keep speeches to the length that hon. Members would wish.
§ Mr. Flynn
The Leader of the House has said that hon. Members on both sides of the House have outside interests. It is worth putting on record the fact that in the last Parliament, 14 per cent. of Labour Members had outside paid interests, whereas 85 per cent. of eligible Conservative Members had such interests. Does the Leader of the House agree that the situation would be clarified if hon. Members were to declare not only their interests but also the amounts of money received?
§ Mr. Newton
I am not sure that what the hon. Gentleman has just said adds hugely to our debate. I am tempted to observe that it merely confirms my view that Conservative Members are of exceptional value.
§ Mr. Newton
I accept that they are not of exceptional value to the Labour Chief Whip, but they are of exceptional value in the role that they play in the House. In saying so, I do not seek in any way to diminish the 838 important contribution that the hon. Gentleman and many others play, with their particular types of expertise drawn from outside.
One of the keys to the balance that the Committee sought to establish is the automatic timetabling of Government legislation. I stress the word "timetabling" as it is important that this should be seen not as a guillotine—which is how we have traditionally thought of such a device—but rather as an attempt to agree, in a prescribed way, a systematic scheduling of the stages of a Bill to ensure organised debate and effective scrutiny. That might or might not mean less time overall being spent on any particular measure than is spent at present, but it could be expected—at least in the minds of those who made the proposal—to be more productive time. In particular, it could be expected to ensure that all parts of a Bill were examined in Committee in a way that our existing procedures have not always managed to achieve.
If the House is serious about reforming sitting hours, it must recognise that this proposal is an essential element in the balance of the whole report, and therefore crucial to an overall package of change.
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
With regard to automatic timetabling and the proposed change in hours, as well as other matters, can my right hon. Friend give the House an undertaking that consideration of the ratification of the Maastricht treaty will not influence the timing of the Government's recommendations? If it is proposed that there should be automatic timetabling, will that be subject to a vote in the House? If not, the Maastricht treaty might be timetabled automatically. without the House being able to express a view on it.
§ Mr. Newton
My hon. Friend may wish to develop that point in the course of the debate. Clearly, he may regard this as a reason for having reservations about the proposal. Indeed, for all I know, his reservations may well go wider than the measure to which he has referred. My purpose today is to describe the approach that the Government bring to the report, without seeking to pre-empt points about timing or about the detailed discussions that would have to take place to overcome some of the reservations that are being expressed in interventions.
§ Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)
I urge the Leader of the House to avoid the trap that he seems to be setting for himself, or—to put it another way—the threat that he is issuing to the House. He seems to be saying that, if there can be no agreement on automatic timetabling, there can be no other changes—in other words, that this package must stand or fall as a whole. The nature of the report and of the changes makes it clear that that is not the case. In saying so, I express a personal view. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am in favour of the timetabling of legislation. However, I should not like him to suggest that no changes could be made unless there were agreement on automatic timetabling, insisted upon by the Government.
§ Mr. Newton
If there is any misunderstanding about that, I should like to clear it up. I do not want to put words in to the mouths of the report's authors, but I think that it is fair to say that the report, including all its recommendations—for example, those about hours, non-sitting days and the handling of business on Thursdays—sees this as a balanced package between timetabling and the proposals as a whole. That is not the 839 same as saying that, if it were not possible to make progress on timetabling—some reservations have already been stated very clearly—nothing at all could be done. Clearly, however, one's view of the balance of the report as a whole would be affected.
§ Mr. Shore
In relation to this point and the point about the Maastricht treaty, paragraph 69 of the report says explicitly:Existing practice would continue in respect of bills taken in committee of the whole House.That is an acknowledgement of the importance of Bills that are taken on the Floor of the House, which generally—at least, often—are constitutional measures.
§ Mr. Newton
I acknowledge the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes.
I recognise that the issue with which we are dealing is a controversial one, although, in the light of what has taken place in the last few minutes, it is hardly necessary to say so. Clearly, there has been growing support for a different approach to timetabling—scheduling, if that word is preferred—in recent years. Some might say—at least one hon. Member has implied this already—that such an approach could make things much easier for the Government. Whether or not that proves to be the case, there will certainly be some who see it as constituting good grounds for caution, as has been amply demonstrated in the past few minutes. However, it would certainly make things better for the House if that were what hon. Members wanted and if the House were prepared to make it work.
As the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has said, in his memorandum to the Committee he expressed his personal support—I emphasise that it was personal support—for the automatic timetabling of all Government Bills. In the debate of 2 March, the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme), who was a distinguished member of the Jopling Committee and whom I am glad to see in his place, was broadly supportive, but clearly he recognised the dilemma on which we have been touching during the last few minutes, while the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) was supportive with some reservations. The Liberal Democrats too, in their memorandum to the Committee, favoured the proposal. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) said in the earlier debate, we must face up to this issue.
We have some reservations about the alternative mechanisms proposed in the report for deciding the timetable of a Bill, but if the general proposal for automatic timetabling were to find favour with the House, the details could be considered further, with a good deal of discussion through the usual channels, before substantive motions were tabled. Clearly this is a difficult and sensitive issue.
§ Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East)
If there were to be timetabling of a kind acceptable to the Opposition of the day, it could be detrimental to the Government, as Standing Committees could then discuss issues which, because of the traps set by Ministers, would not be reached. I say so as one who has been on both sides of these arguments. If there were timetables, and if we were able to discuss and vote on the controversial issues, that would be a benefit, rather than a detriment, to the House.
§ Mr. Newton
The whole House will listen with respect to the views of the right hon. Gentleman, who has a great deal of experience, not least as a Minister piloting Bills through the House. Perhaps it is not proper for me to say so, but he may himself have employed some of the devices that he associates with current Ministers. In any case, he illustrates the fact that this is by no means a simple or clear-cut issue. There is a balance to be considered, and it is very important that we get the detail right—something that I do not suggest I can do in a sentence or two this afternoon.
I turn now to the other recommendations in the report, which can be conveniently grouped in four categories those dealing with the parliamentary week; those concerned with procedures on Bills; a group of three dealing with subordinate legislation; and a fourth group of a more miscellaneous character.
Taking the first group in the context that I have already emphasised—that is to say, a balanced package—I have no difficulty in expressing support for the principle of a 10 o'clock finish as the norm. I do, however, doubt that it would be right for this to be achieved by the rigidity of a formal resolution or Standing Order, and I must, in particular, make clear to the House our reservations about the Committee's specific recommendation that suspension of the 10 o'clock rule be restricted to primary legislation taken as first Order of the Day. That would leave the way open for that first business to be talked out until 10 pm and any other business on the Order Paper scheduled for, say, 7 pm, would fall. That would plainly be very difficult for the Government to accept.
If the House is to rise at 10 pm, it should normally be accepted that the business scheduled for the day, agreed through the usual channels and announced to the House, should be completed by 10 pm on that day. It follows that, in our view, the Government should retain the right to ask the House to continue after 10 pm with Government business entered into before 10 pm. Having said that, sense that the point to which the report attached most importance in this regard was to bring an end to the practice of scheduling completely new business to start after 10 pm. We can certainly accept that aim, when taken with the report's proposal for automatic referral of affirmative statutory instruments to a Standing Committee, which should in itself serve to make much of the business currently done after 10 pm unnecessary other than in exceptional circumstances.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
The right hon. Gentleman just said that affirmative statutory instruments would be considered in a Standing Committee. At the moment, such Committees meet on Wednesday morning in the main, and the report also proposes that the House should sit on Wednesday mornings. Does that mean that those serving on Committees dealing with the merits of statutory instruments would be denied the opportunity to be in the Chamber?
§ Mr. Newton
The hon. Gentleman raises just the type of point that we should, sensibly, consider in the debate. Perhaps his point underlines my reasons for believing that a general debate in which such problems could be explored should take place before we sought to table substantive resolutions. The hon. Gentleman's point is an obvious one that should be considered carefully.
841 Thus, with what are quite limited provisos, we would be happy to see 10 pm become the regular finishing time for public business. Whether it worked out like that in practice is for the House to determine. However, with good sense and a spirit of co-operation on all sides, I see no reason why it should not.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Is it not indicative that the proposals come from a Government in which almost uniquely in British political history, neither the Prime Minister nor many of his senior colleagues have ever been in opposition? That has not happened before. They do not know what it is like to be in opposition. I can see the attraction from the point of view of those on the Government Front Bench of streamlining things to make it easier, but if it were to happen that they had the duty of opposing and really meant what they said, rather than going through the motions and posturing, which is a fat lot of use to anyone, would they then take a similar attitude?
I beg the Leader of the House to understand that those of us who have been in opposition for a long time also have feelings about this. Those who have occupied the Government Benches for so long—uniquely in the case of the Prime Minister, who has never been in opposition—should understand precisely what an adversarial system is about.
§ Mr. Newton
As it happens, I have clear memories of my time in opposition between 1974 and 1979. It is because of my consciousness of the type of point that the hon. Gentleman has raised that I have gone to some length to emphasise in that part of my speech that I have so far been able to deliver that there is a balance to be struck, with consideration on both sides. I am not in any way dismissing, nor have I sought to do so far, the type of considerations that the hon. Gentleman has in mind.
I can give general support to the proposal for Wednesday morning sittings, although, as the report acknowledges, the structure of those proposed sittings needs to be carefully considered. The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) has thrown in another fact that needs to be considered. The Committee recognised the need to avoid Divisions and for that reason, rightly in the Government's view, decided that private Members' Bills should not be taken on such mornings.
The Committee did, however, propose that opposed private business might be taken at a morning sitting, and while I understand the reasoning behind that I see it as presenting rather more difficulty. Opposed private business is by defintion liable to be controversial, with the prospect of Divisions. Although the Committee recognised this and suggested that Divisions could be deferred to a later hour, I doubt whether that would generally be thought to be very satisfactory, and it could undoubtedly be potentially disruptive of the main part of the parliamentary day. I think that we should be looking to establish a position in which business taken at morning sittings is self-contained.
In any event, following the recent changes in the arrangements for dealing with private Bills, the House may 842 feel that this is not the time to propose further changes to the Standing Orders relating to private business. The number of private Bills brought before Parliament is likely to decrease significantly following the recent reforms, and at the very least it would surely be wise to await experience of the new regime before considering whether any further step is needed.
The counterpart to the introduction of morning sittings on Wednesdays is the proposal that 10 Fridays in each session should be designated as non-sitting days. We are ready to accept that recommendation. We find it more difficult to endorse in the same way the other proposal with which it is associated, namely that on Thursdays before non-sitting Fridays the House should rise at 7 pm, which would bring us very close to a position in which for 10 weeks a year the House was reduced to a three-day week for the handling of Government business. Obviously, however, there would be scope, in discussions through the usual channels, to consider the business which might be taken on such Thursdays, with a view to minimising the demands made on Members. I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Bolsover has already referred, from a sedentary position, to the difficulty of deciding, as the report suggests, what is non-contentious or noncontroversial. At least, that is what I took him to mean.
The second group of recommendations, which deals with the procedure on Bills—in particular, Ways and Means and money resolutions, and ten-minute Bills—is largely acceptable, subject to the detailed points I have already made about automatic timetabling of Government Bills and the handling of opposed private business.
The recommendations relating to subordinate legislation are generally sensible and right. In particular. we welcome automatic referral upstairs to statutory instruments. The only significant reservation that I must express in this connection relates to the proposal, relevant to what has happened in the past few minutes, that Front-Bench speeches should be formally limited to 20 minutes or 15 minutes in debates on statutory instruments and European Community documents. However desirable such economy may be—I have already made it clear that I am willing to endorse it on a "best endeavours" basis—the potential difficulties of a formal rule are obvious. They have become even more so in the past few minutes.
§ Mr. Marlow
My right hon. Friend has suggested, according to the report, that statutory instruments should go automatically upstairs. Often, those statutory instruments are controversial and the House would prefer to debate them on the Floor. How, in my right hon. Friend's opinion, should they be dealt with?
§ Mr. Newton
My hon. Friend raises a point that needs to be considered as we study the details of the report. That was precisely the type of point that I hoped would be elicited as a concern among some Members during the debate. The purpose of the debate is to address such concern. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it.
843 The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) should recall that I said that it would be difficult to accept the specific recommendations about a formal 20-minute limitation on Front-Bench speeches precisely because that would constitute a grave inhibition on the type of exchanges that have taken place in the past few minutes. If that is what the House wishes, I would certainly not wish to put a block on it.
§ Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)
May I refer my right hon. Friend to paragraph 74 of the report:It will, of course, continue to be possible to debate the more important and controversial affirmative instruments … on the floor of the House.
§ Mr. Newton
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that clarification, but I believe that the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) raised, which he might seek to develop if he has the opportunity to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, relates to what mechanism should be used to determine what is or is not controversial and important. My hon. Friend is concerned about the problem of definition when determining what business should be taken in which way. We should not disguise the fact that there is scope for disagreement and difficulty, because different Members take different views about the importance and controversiality of particular proposals.
Of the other proposals in the report—those which I described earlier as miscellaneous—I judge that those of most interest to the House would be those relating to the notice and timing of recesses, and the making of business statements to embrace two weeks rather than one.
On the first of the issues, I need hardly say that I understand and sympathise with the wish for greater certainty and earlier notice of recesses, but it would be wrong for me to disguise from the House the fact that the setting of immutable dates many months in advance would give rise to problems similar to those I referred to earlier in relation to specific commitments to a 10 o'clock finish to Government business—that is to say, of strengthening too much the scope for mere obstruction of business. Dates that had to be changed could be the worst of all worlds for everyone.
I certainly can and will seek to build on the steps already taken by my predecessors in recent years to try to give the House an earlier and clearer indication of when it is intended that it should rise for the next recess, as was perhaps most clearly exemplified by what my immediate predecessor did when Easter fell late, to give an early indication that the recess would include the week preceding Easter.
I am of course conscious that the date for the summer recess is of particular concern, especially but by no means only to Members from Scottish constituencies with children at school, whose holidays fall earlier than those in England and Wales. I hope that what we have been able to do this year, in terms of both timing and announcement, may be taken as an earnest of good intentions to move as far as I can in the direction the House would wish.
§ Mr. Newton
In the light of the number of times that I have given way already, it would now be appropriate for me to seek to bring my speech to a conclusion.
844 Similarly, although I well understand the wish to see business statements covering a longer period ahead, I am also conscious that a situation in which business was announced on a basis which would inevitably be much more provisional that at present, with a correspondingly much greater risk that it would have to be changed, could prove even more inconvenient than the present convention. Of course, an overall package of reform may reduce the range of uncertainties and make it easier to plan over a longer period with reasonable certainty; but for the moment I think that I must confine myself to an understanding of "best endeavours", and in particular aim for rather more notice of what might be called "setpiece" occasions.
In seeking to set the scene for this debate today, I necessarily sounded some notes of caution, and not least thought it right to emphasise to the House, as I must again in concluding, the central importance of the balance that will have to be struck between the report's proposal on timetabling and many, if not all, of its other recommendations. But I hope that it is clear that I have done so in a constructive and positive spirit that, with co-operation on both sides of the House, can pave the way, in the wake of this debate, for important and worthwhile procedural reform in the interests of Members, the House as a whole and, above all, the essential democratic process which we are all here to serve.
§ Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)
My view that Parliament needs reform is widely shared not only in the House but increasingly outside the House, too. It is in the interests of the reputation of the House of Commons that we should make a serious attempt at reform.
I submitted a memorandum of evidence to the Jopling Committee. I congratulate my constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), on managing to secure a unanimous report. I shall not bore the House by reading out all my views but shall simply rehearse one or two to point out that the report falls far short of my views and recommendations to the Committee. I favoured morning sittings on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; the ending of business at 9 pm from Monday to Wednesday and at 7 pm on Thursdays; no sittings on Fridays; a fixed parliamentary year; and the timetabling of legislation. I made many other recommendations for change.
The House sits for more days, and more hours on more days, than almost any other western democratic legislature. However, there is no evidence that we are conspicuously more effective at checking the Executive, scrutinising public expenditure or stopping Government legislation going through. I can say that with feeling, having spent seven years as shadow Environment Secretary dealing with numerous large and controversial Bills.
In the 1988 parliamentary Session, for example, environmental legislation took up one third of the parliamentary work load in the House, and it was not much different in earlier years. Of the 1,783 hours and six minutes—for what they are worth—for which the House sat, 606 hours were spent discussing environment business and my hon. Friends and I dealt with virtually all that legislation.
845 Almost all the major Bills that one can recall were guillotined sooner or later. The housing finance Bill, the abolition of the Greater London Council and metropolitan counties, many other local government finance Bills, the poll tax Bill and water privatisation all inevitably ran into the guillotine procedure. That was not because hon. Members were filibustering—we were not. I gave up the idea of speaking for its own sake in this place long ago. I favour more effective scrutiny of the Executive, better-quality checks and balances, not simply of the quantity of time spent in this place, whether in the Chamber or in Committee.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
My first year in the House was 1988, and I served, as the hon. Gentleman probably recalls, on the Standing Committee on the Local Government Finance Bill. We sat many a late night in the Committee Room for six or more weeks before a guillotine came down on that Bill. We then reached the stage when several hon. Members like myself, who had reservations about various parts of the Bill, were able to start debating many of the issues in later parts of the Bill. Would not it be much better to guillotine all Bills from the beginning so that hon. Members who support the Government would not have to sit silently listening to the first six or eight clauses being exhaustively debated by Opposition Members alone before they, too, can discuss the Bill?
§ Dr. Cunningham
I shall return to timetabling in a moment. First I wish to make two or three general points.
Many of my constituents and the people with whom I discuss the affairs in the Chamber agree that the antiquity of our proceedings and the inadequacy of the facilities to help us deal with those proceedings are simply bringing Parliament into disrepute. People do not regard this place as effective and it becomes less and less attractive to many people, particularly women, to want to try to operate under the existing rules. It has been my strongly held view for many years that we should do more to attract women into the House.
Improving our procedures can make us more effective watchdogs of the Executive, which is one of our principal reasons for being here, but also more effective in representing our constituencies and the individual constituents who come to us for redress. I make no apology for being in favour of reform.
§ Mr. Barnes
How can hon. Members act as watchdogs when we are about to go into recess for three months? Avenues of scrutiny and the pursuit of grievances on behalf of constituents will not be available to us. Instead of a three-month break, why do not we spread six or seven of those weeks throughout the year as "constituency weeks"? We would then not have an excessive gap when we cannot keep the Executive in check. The Prime Minister now has the presidency of the European Community for six months and we cannot ask simple questions about it for three months.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I say this with some deference to my hon. Friend, but if interventions last as long as that we shall all end up making very long speeches from the Dispatch Box.
I do not accept my hon. Friend's basic premise. I do not accept that the work that I do as a Member of Parliament 846 stops because the House of Commons is not sitting. I do not accept for a moment that, if I am not present in the Chamber, I cannot write a letter, demand a meeting with a Minister or take a deputation to see people in Whitehall.
I shall say this as humbly as I can. I remember when Labour was in government—my memory is as good as that—and I had the privilege of serving as a Minister. It is often far more difficult for a Minister to deal with well-researched, well-informed, well-constructed letters from parliamentary colleagues than it is for him to deal with questions at the Dispatch Box. I do not accept that I can act effectively on behalf of my constituents only if the House is in session.
Furthermore, I do not accept that our proceedings are effective only if they take place in the Chamber. That is why I am in favour of more business being dealt with in Committee. The lessons learned from the development of Select Committee work over the past few years have led to an increase in the effective scrutiny of Government Departments, public expenditure and Ministers' conduct of business through Select Committee procedures.
When I became a Member of Parliament in 1970, I volunteered to be a Select Committee member. Some of my colleagues thought that rather odd, if not foolhardy; but I served on a Select Committee for six years. I enjoyed it, and I learnt a great deal about the behaviour of Ministers and civil servants in Whitehall and the tricks that they play. That stood me in great stead. I believe that the House's Select Committee work has been one of its successes. At the time, many people opposed it on the ground that it would diminish the effectiveness of Parliament and take too much important business away from the Floor of the House, but I do not believe that that has happened.
We shall study with care what the Leader of the House has said. He has read a good deal into the record about the Government's attitude to the proposed changes. I am speaking for myself, but I hope that it will be possible for us to agree a way forward. I accept the argument of Committee members, and others on both sides of the House, that unless there is a broad consensus in favour of change, no change will come about. It was, after all, Conservative Back Benchers who wrecked the Crossman changes which were introduced in the 1960s.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I was the late Dick Crossman's parliamentary private secretary at the time, and I recall that that was done not so much by Conservative Back Benchers as by his Cabinet colleagues. That is another story, but I know quite a lot about it. My hon. Friend need go no further than Lord Callaghan for a explanation: he knows that what I have said is true.
Can my hon. Friend name a single crunch issue in regard to which a Select Committee has been really effective? What happened in the Westland case? At the end of the day, hon. Members gave in to Leon Brittan. Ultimately, party always comes before Government. Arrangements were altered when a guillotine could not be secured on the Floor of the House, and certain Bills were affected, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will recall—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. Interventions have become progressively longer. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is now becoming a speech.
§ Dr. Cunningham
As I remember, at the end of the Westland affair. Leon Brittan resigned. My hon. Friend's claim that the inquiry had no effect, or that its only consequence was that hon. Members gave in to the Minister, does not accord with historical facts. I believe that two Cabinet Ministers bit the dust. I do not attribute all that to the work of the Select Committee, but to say that nothing happened is to play fast and loose with the facts.
Let me deal in more detail with the issue of timetabling. I am clear in my own mind, on the basis of my own experience, that if we had agreed timetables, scrutiny of the legislation would have been at least as effective. As a result of an enforced guillotine, reams of Bills were never discussed in Committee by either side. That is the truth, and everyone knows it. I do not accept that timetables should be enforced by the Executive; there must be some agreement—on a Committee-by-Committee basis, through the establishment of an independent Committee or through the extension of an existing Committee's remit.
I want timetabling to include special evidence-taking sessions, so that Committees can call expert witnesses—that is already within the Standing Orders—before the application of a timetable. All that must be the subject of serious and careful negotiation. My hon. Friend the Opposition Chief Whip does not share my views; nor, for all I know, do most of his colleagues in the Whips' Office. However, I would join my hon. Friends in the Division Lobby to oppose an enforced timetable. There must be fairness between Government and Opposition.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that the efficacy of Opposition scrutiny is part of the essence of parliamentary life. But how can he reconcile what he has said about the Standing Order arrangement—which would give the majority vote on Committees and timetabling to the Government—with what happens to some Bills? There is an arrangement between the usual channels, and a conversational agreement between hon. Members. Surely the great thing about the Standing Order arrangement is that the initiative is largely with the Opposition in Committees; the Government must produce a response. Surely, giving Governments power to provide an arrangement would diminish the power of the Opposition.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I do not agree. In my experience the initiative was not with the Opposition. Most Secretaries of State—or more commonly, their Ministers—came to Committee stages with a premeditated plan for a guillotine after a certain number of hours of discussion. They did not much care what took up those hours; they simply wanted them to accumulate. We all know that that is the truth. There is not really any argument about it. I have been here 22 years, which is far too long for me to pretend that the system worked in any other way. I do not see why we should disguise the truth from ourselves when we are talking about trying to make our proceedings more effective.
If we are to improve our scrutiny and effectiveness, and if we are to allow ourselves time for further research and better briefing, we need to do something about the hours the House sits. Let me give an example that highlights the weakness of our proceedings. Outside bodies such as pressure groups usually know far more about impending legislation than Opposition Members do. That is partly 848 because Members of Parliament have not sufficient time and/or resources to ensure that they are thoroughly briefed and prepared. For that reason also, I believe that our procedures are in need of change.
The Leader of the House said that he hoped for a quiet afternoon. I never thought that likely; it was a bit of wishful thinking by the right hon. Gentleman. It is clear from our proceedings so far—and we have barely started—that these modest proposals will generate great heat—perhaps more heat than light, I regret to say. In general I endorse the Committee's approach, although I would not agree with every dot and comma. It is good that the Leader of the House mentioned specific proposals for change. They will have to be considered in greater detail than this afternoon allows—but I am certain about one thing: I am on the side of the reformers.
§ Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)
When we debated the report on 2 March I spoke for 18 minutes and I shall try to be reasonably brief today. I must begin this rerun debate by expressing my gratitude to the Committee members who worked so hard in the autumn and winter of last year and reported to the House earlier this year.
I remind the House that those who served on the Committee were distinguished: the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, the Chairman of the Procedure Committee and the former Liberal Chief Whip. Our body of members was thus representative of those in positions of influence, especially on the Back Benches. I was particularly pleased that we produced a unanimous report.
I should like to repeat some of the important remarks of the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), which also appear in the report. This House sits for more days and more hours than any other Parliament in the larger democracies. Our average finishing time in recent years has been almost precisely midnight. It is therefore clear to me, as it was to the Committee, that something needs to be done, because the present state of affairs is not satisfactory.
This debate is different from the March debate, because Front-Bench spokesmen on both sides have been much more forthcoming about the Committee's report. I am grateful to them for their general support this afternoon.
To judge from the speech by the Leader of the House, I would estimate that the Government have endorsed about 80 per cent. of the Committee's recommendations. The hon. Member for Copeland was good enough to say that he supported the report in general. It would be absurd to put a figure on his endorsement because, understandably, he did not go into detail. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the Government for their large measure of acceptance of our recommendations.
I draw the attention of the House to early-day motion 9 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick). It has attracted just short of 220 signatures—about a third of the membership of the House. It, too, endorses the Select Committee's report. A breakdown of that endorsement which the Library gave me last week showed 85 Government supporters and 110 Labour party supporters. I therefore see a great deal of support in the House for our report.
849 I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House told us that the Government will accept many points in the report, but I want to concentrate on the recommendations about which some doubt has been expressed.
My right hon. Friend referred to the difficulties of planning business if a set of time-buffers to Government or any other business is erected. I know that from experience. If we decide to bring business to a close at 10 pm precisely or to get up for the summer recess on 16 July, that offers the Opposition an irresistible temptation to drive the Government into the buffers to ensure that there is unfinished business when the buffers are reached. We all know that that is one of the Opposition's techniques; hence one of the techniques of the Government is not to erect the sort of buffers that provide such an irresistible temptation.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)
They also appear to offer an irresistible temptation to their Lordships' House.
§ Mr. Jopling
Over the past year I have had enough problems with the procedures of this House not to get involved in all that.
Clearly, we want these changes. I agreed with my right hon. Friend that we do not want orders put on at 10 pm following a Second reading debate or an Opposition day—that represents totally new business beginning at 10 o'clock. We want that stopped as soon as possible.
Provided all Bills are timetabled sensibly, in line with the Committee's report, it should not often be necessary to continue Report stages on the Floor of the House after 10 pm. That may have to happen sometimes, but, with a sensible timetable system, it should usually be possible to bring a Report stage to a conclusion at or around 10 pm, obviating the need to go on through all or part of the night.
I understand the reluctance of the Government to agree never to sit beyond 10 o'clock, but we want from the Government statements of good will and of honest best endeavours—and we want the same from the Opposition and Back Benchers. Everyone is responsible for seeing that the general intentions of the House in this respect are abided by.
§ Mr. Spearing
I shall not deal with timetabling, although I take a view different from that of the right hon. Gentleman and of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham)—it is a Front Bencher against Back Bencher issue.
Did the Committee consider the simple device of the recommittal of Bills, whether guillotined or not, so that commitments and discussions that take place on the record but which are not necessarily a cause of division can take place on a recommitted Bill, not on the subsequent Report stage—which should nevertheless not be prejudiced?
§ Mr. Jopling
As I recall, the Committee did not spend much time on that, for the simple reason that none of its members was particularly attracted to that argument.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I marvel at what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. What was he doing about the 10 o'clock rule when he was Opposition Chief Whip? What was he doing to bleary-eyed Labour Ministers who were trying to get Government business through? It is all rather different, 850 depending on whether one is in government or in opposition. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman believed any of this when he was Opposition Chief Whip.
§ Mr. Jopling
The hon. Gentleman has a particularly bad memory; I never was Opposition Chief Whip or even Opposition Deputy Chief Whip. For a short time I was the Opposition pairing Whip—a different matter altogether.
§ Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South)
What does my right hon. Friend say about the constitutional point that a strong Executive can control the legislature? The only real power of the legislature is on the timing of legislation and debate. The unpredictability of that timing is what gives Back Benchers and Parliament real power over the Executive.
§ Mr. Jopling
I shall deal precisely with that matter when I reach the part of my speech which deals with timetabling.
The Committee proposes 10 free Fridays. Many Members, and especially those whose constituencies are a long way from London, wanted clear and certain Fridays to enable them to make firm engagements in the constituencies weeks or months ahead without the risk of having to tell their constituents that they had to be in the House. Members who were keen to have free Fridays were also keen to have the freedom to return to their distant constituencies on Thursday evenings so that they had a clear start on Frieday morning.
§ Mr. Cryer
Will the 10 Fridays to be abolished be those devoted to Government business or private Members' business? With a few exceptions for highly controversial private Members' Bills, for which many people outside want to be sure that we are in the House, by and large most hon. Members can decide whether to be here on a Friday.
§ Mr. Jopling
The Committee proposes that the Wednesday morning sittings for private Members' business would almost exactly replace private Members' time on Fridays. Therefore, the 10 Fridays would come almost entirely out of Government time. I shall shortly turn to the issue of balance. I accept that a business statement on Thursday and perhaps another important statement would make it difficult to finish by 7 o'clock on Thursdays preceding non-sitting Fridays. There should be discussions on that. The Committee and many hon. Members found such moves desirable and worth while.
There is a proposal for a weekly statement giving details of business for two weeks ahead. I am glad to see that the Government Chief Whip is in his place. I entirely understand the difficulties of presenting such a business statement. I know from experience how often the business changes on Tuesday or Wednesday before an announcement on Thursday. I also know that that often happens at the request of the Opposition. That is why the Committee suggested that it should be done as an experiment to see how it works. The House may find that it does not work because of business announced for the second week having to be changed. However, I ask the Leader of the House to look at the matter again because, although it may not work, we should at least try it.
I shall now deal with timetabling. The Committee spent a great deal of time agonising over a package of proposals that would maintain the crucial balance between preserving the Government's right to get their business and giving the Opposition ample opportunity to oppose. Another consideration was the preservation of the rights 851 of private Members. The transfer of private Members' business to Wednesday mornings leaves it almost exactly intact but spread much more evenly over the parliamentary year.
The Committee believed that it had created a balanced package preserving those priorities. It would be unfair to one side or the other for the House to start to unpick that package by taking bits out and putting bits in. The Government cannot refuse to accept shorter hours and expect the package to remain fair. It would be unfair to the Opposition if the Government said that they would not accept a 10 o'clock finish as a general rule or 10 fewer Fridays. Conversely, it would be unfair to the Government if the Opposition refused to accept timetabling. The Committee looked carefully at the issue of balance and it would be unreasonable to remove bricks from the structure.
§ Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)
As a former Chief Whip, does my right hon. Friend agree that, if the Government have a workable majority and not too many rebels, they will always get their business through? It is important to have a structured debate on all subjects giving ample time to the Opposition and to Government Back Benchers who are nowadays often inhibited because of time limitations.
§ Mr. Jopling
I endorse what my hon. Friend says and would have liked time to include the matter in my speech.
There is much work to be done in the recess. The usual channels have a great deal to agree if we are to find methods of changing the rules and introduce the carefully worked out and balanced package in the autumn. I wish them good fortune in their work. If there is the same good will between the usual channels that we had in our Committee, they will succeed—to the benefit of the House as a whole.
§ Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)
I shall be brief, as I spoke in the last debate on the report. I am disappointed that this is another open debate. I had hoped that we would be dealing with Government proposals which could be examined and amended so that we could make real progress in the interests of the House.
The past three months have provided ample evidence that the House needs to reform its procedures. There has been little business, but the House has continued to ramble on and sit for long hours when business has not merited it. As a result, the reputation of Parliament has suffered. Discussions this weekend about the manner in which the Whips have handled issues, the make-up of the Select Committees and the discussions surrounding the debate have done little to serve the interests of democratic accuntability and the progress of real democracy.
I confess that I am not greatly enamoured of procedural debates. I am far more interested in debating issues and getting things done. However, I agreed to serve on the Committee because I believe that democracy is becoming almost a sham, and that people outside have less and less faith in the manner in which we conduct our proceedings. We have to take account of that and do something about it.
Changing and reforming the manner in which the Chamber operates will not make life less easy for the Opposition or make the Opposition more effective. I 852 accept that I have been a Member of Parliament only since 1987, but during that time I have disliked the way in which the Government have used the guillotine. Their argument about the Opposition's use of time is irrelevant, because they have not been able to use time themselves. Neither have they discovered an alternative method of effective opposition, which is what is needed. I want to ensure that we have effective control of the Executive. In the past five years, neither Government nor Opposition Back Benchers have found an effective way to do that. Some of the policies which have resulted from that have not been in the interests of democracy. The poll tax is but one instance of that.
I shall also say something about the job of a Member of Parliament and why I do not accept that the way in which Fridays are organised means that one can make up one's own mind what one does on a Friday. Private Members' business is important, but I am forced by the House to make the decision that on a Friday I have to be in my constituency as much as possible. That is because I employ staff in the constituency and I cannot meet them unless I am there on a Friday. I also wish to visit establishments in the constituency which I can visit only on a Friday. That means that I cannot choose to be here to discuss the issues which are debated on a Friday.
I invite hon. Members to consider the pattern of participation in debates on Fridays. It is virtually exclusively the province of southern Members of Parliament and inevitably, therefore, of Tory Members. That is an abdication of the responsibility of democracy.
§ Mr. Dalyell
May I put a contrary point of view to my hon. Friend? She can go to Durham and do what is necessary in her constituency on a Friday but there are occasions when Scots and others are interested in a particular subject such as toxic waste, Rio or recycling, and have no other opportunity—at least those of us on the Back Benches—
§ Mr. Dalyell
I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the late Dick Crossman when he introduced morning sittings and—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but it is not fair to the hon. Member who has the Floor when interventions become speeches, as I have said already this afternoon.
§ Ms. Armstrong
That is why I say that Fridays must be organised. I, too, am interested in recycling and toxic waste, but I am forced by the House to decide either to fulfil my commitments to my constituency or to take part in the debates. We should organise business so that such choice is not laid upon me. I want both to be involved in those debates and to be able to fulfil my commitments to my constituency.
I accept that things have changed, but constituents do not understand when we are not regularly in the constituency because they know that we can travel easily. We should organise our business here so that private Members' motions and Bills can be debated, but we should also ensure that that takes place in a system which recognises that a Member of Parliament's job is partly in Westminster and partly in their constituency. Furthermore, the House should be so organised that we 853 can make sure that Members of Parliament are much more likely to be listening to and among their constituents in normal times, with the result that we are much more reflective of their aims, aspirations and concerns. The more Members of Parliament are able to become normal—I doubt that we shall ever become totally normal—and the more that we are able to plan family and parliamentary life, the bettter we shall be in increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of democracy.
It is because we are so unrepresentative—
§ Ms. Armstrong
—that we do not attract more women Members and more Members from ethnic minorities. This will never be a nine-to-five job, but we must ensure that Members of Parliament can both have a family and be here, because that will encourage those people to come here.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) uses words that I would not use. If he looks at the women Members of Parliament representing northern and Scottish constituencies, he will see that the majority have no children. That means that we have accepted that doing this job means that we cannot do the job of being a proper parent. That decision does not have to be made by male Members of Parliament or by the partners of lady Members of Parliament. If the House is interested in democratic accountability, we need to have a much more representative and effective membership. I want our debates to be listened to with more care and consideration because people outside see us as being serious about the process of democracy and the issues that we are debating.
§ 6.7 pm
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
As the debate proceeds, two features stand out which I have learnt from 32 years in the House and nine years as Chairman of the Procedure Committee—longer, incidentally than any other Chairman this century. First, reform in this House proceeds exceeding slow. It makes a snail look like Nigel Mansell. Secondly, and of perhaps even greater importance, is the fact that the voices and actions of a few Members of Parliament have all too often frustrated reforms. Governments have seemed unwilling to act on procedural matters unless they could obtain almost 100 per cent.—or perhaps even 101 per cent.—acceptance of any changes that they wanted. I hope that that will not happen today.
I urge, I plead, I even demand, that the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister—both of whom I believe to be in favour of trying to streamline the way in which the House deals with public and private business—should get on with reform. That reform seems to receive approval of anyone to whom a Member of Parliament talks outside the Chamber. If Members talk to those who sign resolutions or to those who do the real work in the House, they will find that, with few exceptions, those people are in favour of the recommendations made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling).
Two years ago, during the summer of 1990, I told the then Leader of the Hosue—my right hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor), now Secretary of State for Transport—that in the coming 854 Session, in the autumn, the Procedure Committee was likely once more to investigate fully the sitting hours of the House and of its Committees. It was then put to me in the autumn of 1990 that the Government might wish to move on these matters themselves. As there was other work for the Procedure Committee to do, we pressed on with that.
Before Christmas 1990, and again in the early spring of 1991, I pressed the then Leader of the House because I wished to know what the Government intended to do. I reported the conversations to the members of the Procedure Committee and then reported to my right hon. Friend the then Leader of the House that I did not believe that they would brook any further delay and that we, the members of the Committee, would proceed unless the Government told us what they intended to do. This they then proceeeded to do, and in May 1991 they announced the membership of the Jopling Committee.
The Procedure Committee accepted the Government's position. It did so because the new Committee was to be established for a specific purpose and was composed of senior and very experienced Members. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has said, the new Committee proceeded with considerable speed. The objective was to produce a report which could be considered—we hoped that it could even be acted upon—before the general election. The first debate took place in March, and this debate takes place four months into the new Parliament. It is a debate on the Adjournment of the House, so there are no specific motions before us. I know that many Members expected the Government to take the necessary action to which the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) referred, which could be agreed by most hon. Members. If the relevant decisions were taken, we could start with the new procedures after we return from the summer recess.
The further delay means that we shall have to have a further debate and the Government will have to table the necessary motions. Is the House so decrepit that we have to lumber along like some tired old tyrannosaurus, hardly able to move forwards? The delay, however, goes much further than that. Exactly half the recommendations of the Jopling Committee are resubmissions or approvals of recommendations made by the Procedure Committee in reports produced in 1985, 1987 and 1989. The longer we wait, the longer it will be before anything concrete is done, and the more we are limited to talk, the greater the likelihood that nothing worth while will be obtained.
Two items in the Jopling report have already been referred for further consideration. I may sound unduly pessimistic, but experience has told me that all too frequently that reform becomes bogged down in inaction. That is not acceptable to the House now.
There are three matters which need to be emphasised, or even re-emphasised. With the normal time scale—that is, not when an early election has been called—over the past 25 years no piece of legislation announced by a Government in a Queen's Speech has failed to take its place on the statute book during the then current Session.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I was talking about the past. I am not looking into the future, and I do not think that I can be asked to do so.
As I have said, no piece of legislation has been delayed because of the major weapon, as Oppositions believe it to 855 be, of time. The effectiveness of that so-called weapon has been exaggerated to a considerable extent, and I do not speak as someone who has not sat on the Opposition Benches; indeed, a third of my time in the House has been in Opposition.
I can think back, all too clearly perhaps, to the days when the then Conservative Opposition were discussing the legislation which followed "In Place of Strife". We sat in Committee for hour after hour. We began our afternoon deliberations at 4.30 pm, and we would break at midnight. We then continued until about 7 am. At midnight, a group of Conservative Members used to return to my flat, where we would have a quick beer and a shower. We would change our shirts and suits and then return to the Committee Room. We hoped thoroughly to annoy the Government by appearing to be in pristine condition and ready to go on for ever.
Did that really achieve anything? Did that really annoy the then Government so much that they were minded to open up "In Place of Strife"? The answer is that it did not. The real difficulty for the Labour Government was that the then Secretary of State, now Lady Castle, lost the confidence of her Cabinet colleagues. We claimed a victory, but that loss of confidence did not result from anything that the Conservative Opposition had done. If we are honest, we know that that is so. Let us therefore reject the concept that time in the hands of an Opposition has a marvellous effect in altering what Governments do. That is pure "Alice in Wonderland" thinking. In other words, it is not realistic.
§ Mr. Dalyell
There is another view. The arguments advanced by the Conservative Opposition against "In Place of Strife" created a situation in which James Callaghan could act as he did. Indirectly—I did not welcome this—that was a major factor in the lack of success of the Labour Government and ultimately in bringing them down.
§ Sir Peter Emery
If the hon. Gentleman believes that, he gives the then Opposition much more credit than any of us who considered the "In Place of Strife" legislation in Committee ever believed should be accorded to us. We know that what he suggested was not the case.
Secondly, there is the amendment that I moved in Committee on 18 February. The Committee seemed to be setting out to fit the same amount of work into a different shaped bottle. My amendment reads:Up to this point in our enquiry we have rearranged the times of sittings of the House as nearly as possible to retain the same number of working hours spent by Members at Westminster. We have devised methods that really do no more than rearrange the existing working hours of the House into a different working pattern, with little overall loss of parliamentary time. However, if we are to make any major alteration or a substantial change to the demands of Parliament itself, one needs to consider the work pattern of today's Members.The Committee has accepted that the House sits longer than any other legislature and, in addition, the constituency demands on the Member have become considerable, growing beyond all previous comparisons. Therefore, a reduction in actual sitting time in Parliament, so that a Member may be more in his constituency, must not be interpreted as a decrease in the workload of the Member of Parliament. It is rather an acceptance of present day demands of the electorate to have the MP in his constituency able to consult more and more with constituents and so reflect the demands of a modern democracy.856 The Committee did not have the time or the ability to consider that proposition if it was to report within the time scale of the previous Parliament. I believe, however, that the House will have to return to these issues. The demands on Members to be in their constituencies, to be seen in them and to be seen working within them, are so different now from 1959 or 1970. Demands have changed. Perhaps pavement politics has brought this about, but it is something that the House must consider.
The Committee's terms of reference precluded our considering the actual size of the membership of the House. Having 651 Members of Parliament makes us the second largest democratic national parliamentary assembly in the world—second only because Germany has brought together the east and west German Parliaments, but it is now taking steps to reduce its size. This House is too large, and there are too many Members of Parliament—[Interruption.] People say that it is impossible for the work load—[Interruption.] It is worth noting—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. Too many seated interventions make it difficult for me to hear the Member who has the Floor. If we intend to make reforms, let us start with a little courtesy.
§ Sir Peter Emery
In talking about the work load of a Member of Parliament, it is interesting to consider the work loads of the leaders of the two main parties. The Leader of the Opposition has an electorate of 55,000; my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has 93,000. If we took my right hon. Friend's electorate as the average, we could reduce the membership of the House by almost 200. Many of our problems would then disappear—[Interruption.] It could be done quite easily if both sides announced that it was to happen in 10 years. Natural wastage and those Members coming up to retirement would then work their way through the system. As I have said many times, it is difficult for a chicken to vote for chicken pie, but if we want major reforms we must consider that proposal.
I wish to discuss the recommendations as a whole. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) has dealt with them seriatim. I wish to consider them as a package because there are balances and counter-balances within that package. There arc ways in which the Opposition would benefit. When there is timetabling, the Opposition can call the tune on what is debated—[Interruption.] Perhaps I may finish my statement. As hon. Members who have served on special Committees know, when a timetable motion has been passed we consider how the time should be allocated. The Minister does not mind how it is allocated; it is the Opposition who decide how the time will be spent. The Opposition are given the power to decide what they want to debate.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I have served on a large number of Committees, but I cannot think of one in which the Opposition have not worked out, right from the start, how they want to allocate the time. That allocation may be disrupted as the Bill proceeds, because of developments and changes, but it would be an irresponsible Opposition who did not allocate time, at least in their mind, as the Bill proceeded. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that that right to allocate time should be taken away from the Opposition and given to the Government.
§ Sir Peter Emery
The hon. Gentleman has not listened to what I have said. He pays no attention to facts. It is true that when both sides go into Committee somebody—who is not too far away from the Chamber at this moment—has already decided when he needs the Bill out of Committee so that it can go to the other place. Every Minister, whichever party is in government, knows that. Provided that the Bill meets that time scale, the whole thing proceeds normally. If that does not happen, after a certain number of days of debate the Government introduce a timetable motion. It would be better if that timetable were imposed at the start of the proceedings, with the Opposition having a say from the start. It should not be left to the Government—
§ Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
I should like to confirm something that the hon. Gentleman said, but in the context of the poll tax Bill. We forced the guillotine on that because the Government wanted an early final day. At home one Sunday afternoon I wrote a timetable motion for the five-day Report stage, which was accepted without quibble by the Minister in charge once the guillotine had been accepted. The opposition had total control over what happened on Report, right down to the last hour. We were satisfied with that, but we were dissatisfied with the early introduction of a guillotine motion.
§ Sir Peter Emery
The hon. Gentleman makes my case for me. That is why there are checks and balances in the packages of recommendations. They arc necessary if we are to go ahead with reforms which make sense both from the Opposition and for the Government. I do not want the Opposition to be weakened—I have been in opposition, and I or my successor is likely to be there again. I am not thinking solely of the power of Government. No one who served with me on the Procedure Committee could level that accusation at me; I have always wanted to ensure power for the minorities and for the Opposition.
Finally, I want to ask for three things. First, now that the debate is virtually over, the Procedure Committee should be reappointed because there is already a queue of subjects with which it needs to deal. I hope that we can get on with that.
Secondly, the departmental Select Committees need to be established. That they have not been established already, despite the recommendation of the Procedure Committee, is a scandal. We have wasted public money. Thank goodness, we should be able to deal with the matter tonight so that those Committees can start their work and operate properly when we return from the recess.
Thirdly, will the Government give me a guarantee that the recommedations of the Jopling Committee will be voted on by the House within 30 days of its return in the autumn? If those three matters can be dealt with, today's debate will have been worth while.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
I have two brief comments on the speech of the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) before dealing with the matter in general. Although some in the House have seen life only from the Government's perspective, and others, like the hon. Gentleman, have seen it from the perspective of both Government and Opposition, some whole parties have seen it only from opposition—
§ Mr. Hughes
It is certainly not as it always will be, as it is not as it always has been in the past. Therefore, our comments both today and in evidence, written and oral, come from the perspective of opposition, but do not preclude the idea of them being implemented when we share in or are the Government.
The hon. Member for Honiton painted a wonderful picture of how much more acceptable life would be if there were fewer Members of Parliament. He compared the electorates of the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister. The logical conclusion of his suggestion that life becomes much easier the larger the electorate is that, with one person representing everybody, there would be no need for debate—[Interruption.] I know that he did not quite suggest that, but some of us believe that we already have enough difficulty adequately representing 80,000 people. Any more than that, especially in urban areas with great social problems, would make life very difficult.
The debate has continued over a long period in different guises, with contributions from our former Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), and our previous Chief Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace). Although all three of us have held a Whip's position—I am currently deputy Chief Whip—I would not want my remarks to be perceived as a Whip's view of life. We try to reflect the views of our colleagues as a whole.
I reiterate the point made in the introduction to the report, which we generally welcome, and I will amplify it in one respect. It is true that we sit for longer than any other Parliament in a comparable democracy—by a long way. We seek to do an enormous amount of work, yet, as others have said, we do not feel that we accomplish it adequately. When studying other Parliaments in democracies during their sitting periods, I have found it interesting that they are generally far fuller than ours is. Members of Parliament elsewhere do not have as many competing demands, so other Parliaments are able to devote themselves more substantially to the significant business of the moment.
Although I would put it differently, I do not dissent from what the Committee identifies as the three principles, which are set out in paragraph 7. First, we have a legislative duty to control and scrutinise the Executive. We have to hold the Executive to account and scrutinise legislation, which is mainly Executive legislation, but also comes from other quarters. Secondly, we have to allow Back-Bench Members to represent interests of concern to them. Thirdly—I make the point rather more widely than the Committee did—we have to allow all parties to put their case as part of the national forum of debate, with the assumption that the Government will get their way in the end. The Committee makes the point about the parties putting their case and also that, at the end of the day, the Government must get their way.
As we made clear in our evidence, we believe that we shall never adequately answer the questions that the report seeks to address—this is no disrespect to the work well done by the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) and his colleagues—until there is substantial devolution of power and responsibility to the regions and countries of the United Kingdom.
859 The S word at the moment is subsidiarity. Unless there is subsidiarity in this country as well as in this continent, we shall not carry out our functions adequately. People ask me, "What were you doing last Wednesday night or last Thursday night?" The answer may be that we were debating Northern Ireland legislation often of quite significant insularity to that part of the United Kingdom. We may have been debating Scottish legislation in a debate in which only Scottish Members took part because the subject was relevant only to Scottish Members who were the only people with knowledge of it. We may have been debating Welsh legislation.
Unless we come to the conclusion that it is better that such matters are dealt with in Northern Ireland, in Scotland, in Wales or in the regions of England, we shall not be able to shed that work which we try to do along with everything else.
We try to deal with the whole of the international agenda and with the whole of the United Kingdom agenda. We try to deal with the national agendas of Ireland, Wales and Scotland, with the regional agenda and with the local agenda. That is an impossible collection of work. Just as work will gradually go up to the European level and to the European Parliament, so work must gradually go down to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. We could then cope with the work load and we should all feel much happier as a result.
§ Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)
I do not want wholly to destroy the hon. Gentleman's argument, because I agree with a great deal of it. However, is it not possible that if, rather than devolving government as he suggests, Governments did less, there would be less for us to talk about? The argument for devolution does not stand on its own.
§ Mr. Hughes
They are separate arguments; I understand that. My late colleague David Penhaligon, when he used to take tours round the House, went into the Lobby, where there are two volumes of the statutes currently in force. One runs from 1265 to 1956 and the other volume, of similar size, runs from 1956 to 1986, the year he died.
We legislate an enormous amount, although that is not always the fault of Government. Many of us put pressure on Government to legislate, and the pressure comes not only from non-Conservative parties, but from Conservative Members. With the best of intentions, any Government, no matter how thin a programme they have, end up legislating far more; I fear that that is the nature of society. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, if we thought twice and found other ways in which to deal with problems, it would be better and we could reduce our load in that way. However, that does not detract from my more fundamental constitutional point about it being a better system to decide matters at the appropriate level.
The Leader of the House divided the 26 recommendations into five categories. Fifteen concern our sittings and three concern secondary legislation. A few are about the parliamentary year, and there is a pair of proposals about the timetabling of speeches and about the timetabling of legislation. There are three proposals at the end about various separate and relatively ancillary matters.
My colleagues and I welcome the report generally. We have given our evidence and I do not intend to rehearse what we have said. We would have gone further on certain 860 points; we would not have gone less far on any point. It takes a long time to get movement in the House, but implementing the report would be a step in the right direction. I agree with the hon. Member for Honiton and with the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that the mood of the country is that we should move in that direction. People do not understand why we are left in a time warp.
There is not yet a consensus, although there is a clear better view on the two controversial issues of sittings and of timetabling. I and my colleagues agree with the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) on sittings. The competing demands on Members of Parliament are such that, especially for those representing far-flung parts of the United Kingdom, it is not possible to do the job properly if, on a Friday or a Monday, one is obliged to be in two places at the same time. There may be equally good reasons for a Member to be here and to be in his constituency.
We cannot do everything during the summer or Christmas holidays, we cannot visit everybody, many places are not open on Saturdays and Sundays, and we have constituency obligations. To move to fewer Friday sittings while ensuring that the balance of the week combines some morning sittings with some later sittings until 10 pm seems about right.
I do not agree that the principal reason for continuing to sit from lunchtime until the evening on most days is the jobs and convenience of people in the City or in the law courts. The House will make a decision on the matter excluding the interests of those Members, although there are some interests that militate for such hours.
In view of the time taken in opening our post, dealing with our correspondence and serving on Committees, we must have some time mid-week when we are not sitting in the Chamber. The balance is to sit on a Wednesday morning to deal with less controversial business and to finish generally at the sensible hour of 10 pm.
If people are going far away, they need to get away on a Thursday night. We must allow some people, especially London Members who have obligations, the opportunity to do other things in the evenings. The balance is more or less right. Let us try the proposals and then review them if they are gradually found to be unsatisfactory. We are not writing the proposals in stone for all time.
§ Mr. Rooker
What are the special obligations for London Members in the evening which bypass the rest of us?
§ Mr. Hughes
I was making the point that one of the many factors that the report seeks to balance is the fact that different Members in different parts of the country have different time obligations and constraints. I cited the hon. Gentleman's colleague, the hon. Member for Durham, North-West, who said that she needs to be back in her constituency on Fridays.
There are arguments for keeping some parts of the week free of sittings so that we can perform different constituency obligations. We must arrange our hours differently. I am not asking for special considerations for London Members: I am saying simply that there are many different considerations which mean that we cannot satisfy everyone's best interests by any proposals.
The other controversial matter is timetabling. It is important that the report does not intend timetabling for 861 Bills whose further stages will be taken on the Floor of the House. It is important that constitutional matters are not timetabled and are taken here. We should all be aware that such legislation is excluded from the proposals.
I have not been a Member of this place for as long as some: I have been here for nearly 10 years. However, I believe that, over that time, the Opposition have never gained from trying to trip up the Government in respect of their timetabling. We may prolong a sitting, keep people up all night or keep debates running, but at the end of the day, the Government get their legislation. They normally do that with a guillotine, which means that there is no debate on the later swathes of that legislation.
When the Government have been tripped up over the past few years, it has happened because the view across the Floor of the House has provided a majority against the legislation. That is not a matter of procedure; it is a matter of substance. That happened with Sunday trading. The poll tax came close, and it happened with dog registration. It has occurred with big issues and little issues. In respect of timetabling, it is not that the Government failed to win the tactical, internal procedural battle: instead, they failed to win the battle on the merits of the issue.
§ Mr. Michael Spicer
It is clearly a matter of fact and part of our constitution that the Government get their business. If they do not, there is a confidence vote and if they lose that, the Government must go to the country. The issue is whether, by having some unpredictability in our timetable or potential rows between the Opposition or Back Benchers and the Government, the Government must then pause for thought and modify their position.
I have been here for 20 years, and I believe that Governments do modify their position. When I was in government, one worked out in advance what issues might cause rows and where one might have to modify the issue, but without giving up one's basic principles. However, the fact that it is not completely predictable that the Government will get their legislation is of some importance.
§ Mr. Hughes
I understand that, and that is the balance that we must weigh. Is there an overriding advantage in giving Opposition Members and parties that opportunity, or are there more advantages the other way? We believe that, although there are sometimes advantages, by the end of the parliamentary year the Government have got their way on everything, although there may be a little internal manoeuvring.
However, more importantly, there is better and more substantive debate if legislation is timetabled. It is also possible to win some of the arguments. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said, timetabling normally means that what the Opposition want to debate is chosen. It avoids silly time-wasting when, to be honest, we do not all have the time to spare to debate through the night for no purpose other than to delay legislation to gain a tactical advantage.
On balance, I am convinced that, although the Opposition are giving away one of their present rights, in the end they are giving it away for something that will produce better legislation, give a greater opportunity to influence legislation and achieve better debate, and will not provide a disadvantage in terms of what is debated. I say 862 that as the hon. Member who, I believe, holds the record for keeping the House going for the longest time since the war, when I forced the House to sit for 37½ hours on the abolition of the Greater London council and the metropolitan counties. It felt very good at the time, but at the end of the day, the Government got their business a day earlier than they would otherwise have got it. Therefore, to that extent, the delay was not worth it.
I believe that we should timetable legislation and speeches. The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) made a fair and generous point when he said that there must be fairness in the House between the Treasury Bench and Opposition parties. The one thing that I would want on behalf of my colleagues and me and on behalf of hon. Members who might be members of parties which are not the official Government or Opposition parties, is that any Business Committee that timetables legislation should include representation of that interest—as there is at the moment, quite properly, on the Committee of Selection.
There must also be fairness in respect of allocation of time for speeches. I heard the Leader of the House earlier, and I am aware of the problems with interventions. There must be fairness to avoid what happened in the debate on the common agricultural policy the other day, when the spokesperson for the third party was limited within the 10-minutes rule, but the Front-Bench spokesmen spoke for 37 minutes and 35 minutes respectively.
Fairness for different points of view enhances Parliament as a forum for debate. I hope that one of the things that will come out of the recommendations of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House is that all parties will be involved in the procedures in a way that they traditionally have not been during a generation when there were only two large parties as a matter of British constitutional tradition. I share the hope that we will proceed after this debate, which I accept was a necessary step, to implement the reforms as early as possible when the House returns in October, and certainly so that they take effect no later than 1 January 1993.
§ Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)
My most abiding and vivid impression of my first Parliament, which was the previous Parliament, was not of the Chamber or congested offices, but of the Library where, night after night on occasions, I saw senior Members—both in age and position—aroused from their slumbers in armchairs to vote, vote, return to their armchairs and go back to sleep straight away as though nothing had happened. They would then get up again, vote and go back to sleep.
As a newcomer, I marvelled at that performance. I could not understand how anyone could do that so quickly. I felt as though I was in a state of permanent jet lag, but those supermen and superwomen were able to treat our most anti-social and unusual schedule as though nothing were happening.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that this debate is very much for the new Members. It is a great pity that there are not more of them here. However, we are on a one-line Whip today and many hon. Members will have taken this opportunity, because of the pressures of the business of the House, to be in their constituencies—or perhaps to catch up with their sleep.
863 The procedures that we have seen this summer are not representative of the House in full swing in June or July. New Members would be ill advised to take their decisions on the basis of the business that we have conducted this summer. They have been lulled into a false sense of security; the business can he much tougher at this time of the year.
My belief in reform is absolute. That is why my first act in this new Parliament was to go to the Table Office and table early-day motion 9 to gauge support among hon. Members for reform. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) generously referred to my motion and to the 85 Conservative Members and more than 100 Opposition Members who signed it. However, there are also many other signatures from the minority parties. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale does not know that I have a sheaf of letters from Ministers, Opposition Front-Bench Spokesmen and Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who cannot, by convention, sign my early-day motion. The total of signatures is not 216—the most signatures that any early-day motion has attracted this Parliament; the real support amounts to nearly 300 signatures, which is almost half the House of Commons.
It would be bizarre if this House, which passes reforms that affect all walks of British life, should not apply that reforming spirit to itself. As televising has been thrust upon us, the demands are that much greater, as many hon. Members have said.
Our constituents do not like hon. Members to traipse through the Lobbies during the night, pretending that they are doing something useful when they are not. Because of our archaic procedures, they are simply following the rules that have been laid down to deliver the business. That cannot be the right way, and it must be changed. The hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) eloquently put the position for women, particularly northern women. She said that many ladies who represent northern constituencies have given up the option to have a family in order to come here. That is absolutely disgraceful.
§ Mr. Barnes
How many all-night sittings take place and how many hon. Members are expected to be present? Often, a small number of Opposition Members can keep the Government going. The Government require about 120 Conservative Members to ensure that there are 100 to vote on a closure motion, but that is done on a rota. Hon. Members are not always sleeping in the Library. The process is selective.
§ Mr. Tredinnick
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's view. With respect, he is being rather selective, too. If there is a three-line Whip, all hon. Members must be here. What is more, as the hon. Gentleman will know, at times there is pressure to find somewhere to put one's head down. I am not saying that that happens all the time—that would be misleading. My right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has said that he has tried to make the procedures easier within the existing constraints. That has been widely welcomed.
I now refer to the substance of the report. The proposals to reduce the number of late-night sittings are excellent. It is sensible, having read previous reports on how the Crossman experiment in respect of morning sittings worked, not to put business down for Tuesday and 864 Thursday mornings, as that would disrupt Standing Committees, but it is eminently sensible to try the experiment on Wednesday mornings.
I do not often find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), but I have some reservations about doing away with so many Fridays. Fridays are good opportunities to be present. We are seldom required to be present. As there is much evidence of the pressure of time, knocking out Fridays is not the way to proceed. The way to proceed is to insist that we can get away at seven o'clock on Thursday evenings and have the option of Fridays. There do not appear to be many days of tough Government business on a Friday—I can hardly remember one.
The report says much about when and how often we vote, but nothing about a reduction in the time it takes to vote—that is, the mechanics of voting. I applaud the idea of putting money resolutions in substantive motions, but it is extraordinary that we have not considered electronic voting. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) complains. I am not suggesting that we should always vote by means of an electronic voting system. I know the arguments about Divisions being great opportunities for hon. Members to meet Ministers and senior Front-Bench spokesmen in the Division Lobbies, but surely we do not need to do that time and again in one evening.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is looking for extra hours to replace the business that he wants to take off after 10 o'clock. Surely we can experiment with electronic voting. I am fortunate because of my eastern European interests. I have been able to observe electronic voting in Parliaments in Moscow, Kiev, Bucharest and Sofia. They believe that electronic voting is a terrific help. The Bulgarian Parliament can conduct a vote in 20 seconds. Surely there is a way of marshalling some votes so that we can conduct them very quickly, thus saving much time. It takes the best part of half an hour for a Division on a three-line Whip.
§ Mr. Michael Spicer
My hon. Friend has mentioned countries that have just managed to emerge on the democratic scene. Is he proposing that as they have had such enormous experience of democracy and have push button voting we should follow them? Surely that cannot be part of his argument.
§ Mr. Tredinnick
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for helping me. Those Governments have examined all the best democratic systems and have formed a view of what is most efficient and what is best. I am not suggesting that for the House of Commons, but we should examine electronic voting as a possible way of reducing the time that we spend voting.
Another option is available under Standing Order No. 39 and that is votes being taken by hon. Members standing in their places in certain circumstances when the Chair believes that a vote would be carried by a substantial number of hon. Members. I have seen that procedure in action once. We should consider using Standing Order No. 39 more often.
Hon. Members have referred to late hours and family pressures. My family is very important to me. All hon. Members' families are important to them. The late hours make family life difficult. The uncertainty about the business of the House is a nightmare from the point of 865 view of trying to look after a family and one's constituents and interests in the House. Not knowing the business for Tuesday until Thursday evening makes life difficult. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for considering the possibility of giving greater notice of business. It is irritating never knowing what we are to do next week.
Surely there is a way of giving one day or two days' business two weeks ahead? Surely my right hon. Friend can give us one day when he can say, "That is a sure two-line Whip." He may not be able to give the business for the whole of the second week, but he might be able to say, "I am certain that Tuesday will be all right, but I cannot be sure about Wednesday and Thursday."
The Jopling report found that 50 per cent. of hon. Members were not happy with the recess times, because of the school holidays, and 72 per cent. of hon. Members were dissatisfied with the uncertainty of business in the House. I agree that the three-month break is absurd. I should like to share a memory with hon. Members. A very great friend of mine, the daughter of a very senior, alas departed, hon. Member told me, when I was contemplating a parliamentary career, how the parliamentary year had affected her family. She said, "I hate to see it. My father comes home at the end of July absolutely drained and exhausted. He then takes three months to wind down completely and then he has to wind himself up again in the autumn." That cannot make any sense, never mind the point about the House not sitting for three months of the United Kingdom presidency of the EC. Hon. Members do not need five weeks to travel by road to their constituencies. That is the reason we have the long recess. It must come to an end.
When the proposals come before the House on substantive motions in the autumn, as I hope they will, I shall urge hon. Members to vote for reform, particularly new Members, to avoid—
§ Mr. Tredinnick
I am sorry, but I shall not give way, as I am finishing my remarks.
My hon. Friend should vote for reform to avoid themselves and their marriages being broken on the wheel of late and all-night sittings.
§ 7 pm
§ Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I have been saddened by what I have heard so far in the debate. I am reminded how difficult it is to get anything done in this place. Indeed, it was you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, who reminded me that, after three years, it is at last possible to have a glass of water available in each Committee Room when Committees are sitting. If it takes that long to achieve that little progress, what hope do we have of creating a Parliament which is worthy of our parliamentary democracy and to which people can come to do the job that they were selected to do—to represent their constituents and play their full part in the proceedings at Westminster?
One of the arguments that we have heard so often this evening is based on almost deliberate misunderstanding. I want to see not merely reform but radical reform, so that 866 women in particular can come to the House and play a full part. When a substantive motion is put before us, we must address the need for Members of Parliament to have one job alone. The time they spend here should be devoted whole-heartedly to the House and the constituency.
Otherwise, we shall always work according to a set of assumptions which decree that we cannot start until 2.30 pm, except perhaps on one day a week if we are lucky. We shall be committed to sittings which continue all night and extend from Thursday into Fridays, for example. We shall not organise ourselves in a competent and efficient way. We should take one step back and ensure that there is no moonlighting. We should be here simply and purely to represent the needs of the people who elected us. That is fundamental.
I shall keep my speech brief, because we have had a lengthy discussion. One further issue must be addressed. I would introduce not merely reform but radical reform. I would introduce a new model for organising our debates. We should not play around the edges and change a Friday or Thursday here and there. My ideal world would be a cycle of four or perhaps five weeks of Committee meetings and opportunities for legislation. We would then have perhaps a week in which we could spend time away from the House legitimately in our constituencies and be in touch with the people we represent, attend meetings, organise surgeries and do all the things that a hard-working, conscientious Member of Parliament should do.
Such a model, which has already been adopted by other European Parliaments, would allow us to deal with the fundamental problem of how best to represent people. I am sorry that, in its deliberations so far, the Select Committee did not feel able to make such radical proposals. The report tinkers with the edges and satisfies no one. It may make matters better for some constituency Members of Parliament in London and the south-east or those who do not have families with whom they wish to spend time. The Committee may have thought that, by changing some of the hours, it could bring about change, but the change will not make it any easier to do the job that we were brought here to do.
I hope that the Leader of the House will table substantive motions early in the autumn. I hope that he will pay particular attention not only to Friday but to Thursday night sittings. What help is it to Members of Parliament who live far away to have 10 Fridays when we can be in our constituencies instead of in this place, if we cannot get away on Thursday night? Members not only from Scotland but from other parts of the country have long journeys home. It may be even more difficult to travel home to one's constituency and family if one cannot simply take a taxi to Heathrow and get on an aeroplane.
§ Ms. Walley
As my hon. Friend says, they can take the tube. In some parts of the country, we do not have rail services after 8 pm. If we are to have 10 Fridays on which we can make constituency commitments which are not subject to parliamentary business, it is important that we know with certainty that we can get away on Thursday night. It will be no use if we have to spend the night here in London because we cannot get home.
We must have access to public transport to return to our constituencies on Thursday nights, so that we can have 867 meetings all day on Friday, do the business that: our constituents want us to do and be lobbied. Let us face it: our constituents cannot afford to travel down to London to lobby us. In any case, there are no facilities at Westminster for them to make their points to Members of Parliament. I hope that the Leader of the House will take that point.
We should carefully consider the recesses. I was disappointed with what the Leader of the House said. I hope that he will spend the long summer recess reviewing the matter. In my radical alternative, we would have four weeks on and one week off for not eight months of the year, but the whole year. We would have the same holidays as everyone else. If we have any commitment to our constituency, our constituents and our families, what good is it if we cannot even book a holiday or a weekend away? Why cannot we have more detailed information about the summer recess and Easter? I urge the Leader of the House to consider that.
There is a danger that we shall end up with a system which will defeat people who are prepared to serve a constituency. Members of Parliament will end up as clones. It will not matter which side of the House they sit on. We shall end up with only people based in the south-east and London. That is fine if one has a constituency in that area and one can attend essential meetings during the day, but it is not fine if the constituency is some distance from London. We must address the issue urgently.
I do not want a system which allows few women to deal with the strains that being a Member of Parliament necessarily involves for not only women but men. We must ask how it is possible to juggle not merely the usual demands of work and family that everyone faces but the demands of work, constituency and family. Our job requires us legitimately to be in two places at the same time. To spend four and a half days a week at Westminster and an additional eight hours travelling to and from Westminster leaves us with precious little time to be with our constituents, never mind our families.
The House will be a worse place if people are forced to end all the ties with their constituency because they cannot live there as a result of the demand placed on them by Westminster. People will end up in desperate situations with their family life because they do not have the time to spend with their family. If we were prepared to manage our time efficiently and programme the parliamentary timetable, we could make tremendous improvements.
The greatest irony is that we talk about ourselves as the mother of Parliaments yet we positively discourage women from becoming Members of Parliament by having a system with which they cannot deal. I want changes, and I urge the Leader of the House over the summer recess to think about all the people who have resigned from the Government simply because they wanted to spend more time with their family.
§ Ms. Walley
I did not believe any of it.
Would it not be far more positive and constructive if people's energies were channelled into finding a way in which Members could come to Parliament to further the aims of parliamentary democracy and do exactly what they were elected for—serve their constituencies with 868 honour? I hope that, no matter how much time we have wasted already, when we debate the matter next time, we shall be in a position to make some real progress. I look forward to that day.
§ 7.8 pm
§ Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South)
Some of this debate has sounded like shop stewards meeting to determine improvements in our contracts of employment. Perhaps we should all resign en bloc, study the matter properly, and ensure that our holidays and family relationships are sorted out before we decide whether to come back. As we all know, there is enormous competition to do our jobs, both within our own parties and, at general elections, across the party divide.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) touched on the subject of public opinion. For what it is worth, my view is that the public are somewhat perplexed about why we are increasing our expense accounts and proposing to cut our hours. Public opinion on the matter is rather mixed.
The nub of the problem, which has come out well in the debate, relates to the constitutional question and the relationship between the Executive and Parliament as the legislature. It is better to consider the problem in those terms, rather than in terms of Opposition or Back-Bench interests. A fundamental constitutional issue is involved which is peculiar to this country. We have a strong parliamentary tradition but, unlike the United States, there is no division of powers with separate powers being given to the Executive and to the legislature—powers with their own legitimacies.
We have an integration of powers, in which the Executive control the legislature, and would have to resign if they did not control it. We therefore start with a fundamental constitutional imbalance. Some European countries do not have a parliamentary tradition—the French, for example, have virtually dispensed with their Parliament—so it does not particularly matter. In our country there is at least the myth of a strong parliamentary tradition, but there is an imbalance because of the position that the Executive have built up over many years.
The question is whether that imbalance will be aggravated or worsened by the proposed measures. My submission is that it will. I have listened intently to the debate about time, which has been well argued by both sides. Of course I accept that the Government must have their business—that is part of our constitution. I also accept that we have left behind the romantic ages when we persuaded one another of anything through debate. There is no question of persuasion—we all have our views, we speak about them, and then we rush off to do whatever we have to do. There is no question of hon. Members listening and determining their view as a result of debate.
In many respects, the objective of the report is to improve the detail and honing of legislation. I accept that the proposals might provide extra time for detailed analysis in Committee, and that in the past that may well have been distorted due to the way in which we have conducted matters. However, time is the fundamental issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith), among others, said that, since the Government get their way anyway, there is not much point in worrying about time, or even discussing whether 869 Parliament is a check or balance in the constitution. The Government get their way and we must organise things so that everyone can have their say tidily. That is the nub of the argument.
My hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) shakes his head, but he advanced a similar argument. His speech was well reasoned and argued but as I understood it he said that, despite all their efforts, Oppositions never achieve anything, and instanced various occasions when he had been in opposition. That requires testing, first, from the point of view of whether protest through a row, or the threat of a row, is any check on the Executive.
Having been a member of the Executive for 10 years, I can say that, when we decided on details of legislation or the way in which we should present it or argue it in the outside world, the fact that we thought that there might be a major row which would affect the ease with which we secured the passage of a Bill did have an effect on the way we discussed the legislation. In many cases, the details of legislation and how Parliament should proceed with it were discussed in detail through the usual channels, so it is not accurate to say that the Opposition and Parliament have no control through timing. The unpredictability of timing is the key factor, because that determines whether the Executive must pause for thought before introducing legislation to the House.
One of the reasons why the Executive pause for thought and why the Opposition and other Members are able to discuss issues with the Government is that rows have affected the course of legislation and subsequent history. I was and still am in favour of the community charge, so I can say that. The rows over community charge legislation, many of which were associated with timetabling, percolated out, affected the mood outside, and therefore played a part. I concede it was not necessarily a decisive part and those rows were not necessarily the only constraints on Government. The present untidiness in Parliament is a strength of a constitution in which Parliament is pretty weak.
One of the reasons why Parliament is weak is that most of its Committee structure—certainly the Select Committee structure—is set up to deal with matters after they have occurred in Government. That has been the constitutional position of Parliament for many years. As events now move so fast, especially technological events, increasingly Parliament must have a role in pro-actively considering the options facing Government. That is one reason why I was honoured to take on the chairmanship of the parliamentary office of Science and Technology. That seems to be a new parliamentary organisation which, with staff, can begin to look ahead and to provide Parliament with the options so that it may debate the political dimensions. That aspect did not emerge in the report by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), and we should be involved in such activity to a greater extent.
Before I conclude, I cannot refrain from saying that this debate may be academic if the powers of Parliament are transferred to European non-elected institutions, in particular, the Commission, the law courts and a central bank, if there is to be one; then many of these arguments may be fruitless. If that happens, there might well be a case 870 for timetabling ourselves strictly because debate would be a waste of time anyway. However, I do not think that we have reached that situation.
§ Mr. Tredinnick
I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend's arguments. Does he agree that the Maastricht treaty would bring power back to this House? Would it not set the trend to bring back national powers from the European Parliament?
§ Mr. Spicer
If my hon. Friend is talking about subsidiarity, I thought that we had that already. I do not see the point of having to give away powers before the new institutions and, in particular, the Commission are generous enough to give them back. No doubt we shall debate that at some length in the autumn, or whenever the Government decide to move on the matter. I do not want to anticipate that too much, save to say that this Parliament is worth protecting and preserving.
Parliament is not in a strong position vis-a-vis the Executive or, increasingly, the European non-elected institutions. We should therefore be very wary indeed about doing something which, in my humble opinion, would be good for the Executive and thus almost, but not quite, by definition bad for Parliament. This is a very serious matter and I am highly sceptical about the propositions before us, especially those concerning timetabling.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
The hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) has just made a very fruitful contribution. Debate in the Chamber is important. In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill drew attention to the difference between putting forward dead dogma and putting forward an argument that was part of a living truth. One may speak the truth, but if people do not listen and if one does not have to justify one's position, the truth may die away, and the reasons for coming to the conclusion may disappear. However, when there is proper debate, even those who take up what are held to be correct positions are on much stronger ground as a result of having tackled other ideas and listened to other arguments.
That is what should happen in this House. We ought to have genuine debate. It should not be simply a question of blocks of Members doing their 10 minutes while everybody else waits around, nobody listening to what anybody else says. It should not simply be a matter of proceeding to votes as quickly as possible. If it were, everything could be worked out by machines. This ought to be a living Chamber, in which Members can alter situations by debate and discussion. Even if one were unable to influence a decision about a specific piece of legislation, one might alter attitudes in the House and in the country at large.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I would not interrupt my hon. Friend if his speech were limited to 10 minutes. That would be discourteous to a colleague. One may interrupt hon. Members—opponents or one's hon. Friends—if one knows that their time is not limited, but if my hon. Friend were time-limited, I would not muck up his speech by interrupting.
§ Mr. Barnes
That is how my hon. Friend behaves, but there are hon. Members who would interrupt. Of course, I could refuse to accept interventions, and could be just as rough as those seeking to intervene.
We often talk too much about our own concerns and problems, and too little about the needs of our constituents. I realise that, if we are half dead as a result of the way in which we do business, we cannot look after our constituents' interests properly, but there is a great deal of mythology. The problems are exaggerated.
Let me refer in particular to all-night sittings. It may be that debates involving three-line Whips that take place at one o'clock in the morning could be organised for more sensible times, but how often do we have all-night sittings for which all hon. Members are expected to be present? Last week, we put out a story that something called the Consolidated Fund Bill kept us here all night. In fact, the few people lucky in the draw and duty Front Benchers were the only ones involved. Those who did not put their names down, those who were unlucky in the draw and those who, like myself, came so far down that they withdrew their names were able to pop off and get to bed.
§ Mr. Cryer
Does my hon. Friend agree that the last time there was consensus between the two Front Benches in respect of changes in the House was the occasion on which the Consolidated Fund Bill debate ceased to be a proper debate? We secured a major concession in terms of legislation. Under the previous system, debate was virtually open-ended. The current curtailment is due entirely to the conspiracy of consensus between the two Front Benches, and that appears to be very much the case tonight.
§ Mr. Barnes
I accept what my hon. Friend says—not because I was in the House at the time, but because he has already told me and I have not heard any counter-argument.
§ Mr. Rooker
I was in the House, on the Government side, when at 3 o'clock in the morning, during a debate on a Consolidated Fund Bill, there were 100 Members on the Opposition side. They learned the lesson. The Conservatives, in opposition, used the Consolidated Fund Bill, but having got into government, they made damn sure that that would not happen to them. The incident to which I refer took place about 1976.
§ Mr. Barnes
Obviously there will be 100 or 120 Members present for open-ended debates—for instance, for the Report stage of a Bill. In such circumstances, the Government must have 100 Members available so that a closure motion may be carried. Members may filibuster, intentionally or unintentionally, but the Opposition do not require massed ranks in those circumstances. A dozen people can keep things going, and the pressure is on the Government to close debate at a certain stage. But that is fruitful pressure, which does not necessitate the presence of all Government Members for the purpose of going through the Lobbies.
Arrangements are made to have people on duty at different times. We hear about people sleeping in libraries, but the difficulties ought to be put into perspective. We can all tell sob stories, but adding them all together creates a false impression. We do not often have all-night debates necessitating the presence of the massed ranks of Members. A few weeks ago, we had an all-night debate 872 about Maastricht, but the number of people who wanted to get on the record was relatively small. They were the ones involved in those matters—although others may have wondered whether they ought to turn up.
§ Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)
As a member of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, I am very much aware of the fact that the 10 o'clock recommendation relates to primary legislation taken as the first Order of the Day. Does my hon. Friend agree that this place is really a museum, and anachronistic? We are arguing about the terms for all-night sittings. Surely, in the 20th century, we could finish our business by 10 o'clock. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very difficult to tell constituents that we cannot complete our business during the day and rise at a reasonable time? The current situation simply adds to the mystique of this place. It is absolute nonsense to argue that all-night sittings are necessary.
§ Mr. Barnes
It depends on what we are trying to do on behalf of our constituents. The Report stage of a Bill, for instance, may involve amendments that we have put down in the interests of constituents. It may be in the early hours of the morning that we have an opportunity to get a response from a Minister. Indeed, we often get quite favourable responses—favourable in the sense that they are levers that can be used in the future, if not promises to accept the arguments that have been advanced. Obviously I am in favour of sensible sitting arrangements. It might be helpful if we were able to start earlier and finish earlier, but hon. Members' involvement in Committee work has to he taken into account. Often, the people who are most active in Committee are the ones who are willing to stay late at night. They do not want to lose the opportunity to argue on behalf of their constituents.
We keep hearing about how this legislature has longer sittings than any other legislature in the world. The current Session will have included two summer recessions and a general election, and by mid-October next year, the House of Commons will have sat for 27 out of 63 weeks.
I do not think that that is too burdensome for hon. Members. We should tackle the problem of lengthy recesses—
§ Mr. Rooker
My hon. Friend would be more open with the House if he said what the figures would be by the time we reach next June, because they would include two parliamentary years and two summer recesses, rather than two summer recesses and one parliamentary year. We can do arithmetic, Harry.
§ Mr. Barnes
I was open with the House, because I said that the figures related to a 63-week period, which included two recesses and a general election. Of those 63 weeks, we will have been here for just 27. I know that some adjustments to the figures should be made, but the big problem behind those figures is the two summer recesses. One of them lasted three months and the other for about 11 weeks.
Those lengthy recesses present us with a great problem, because they mean that our constituents, through their Members of Parliament, are denied avenues of scrutiny and the means to pursue grievances. It is all very well for 873 my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) to say in answer to me that I can write letters to Ministers or organise deputations during a recess. I can write such letters when the House is sitting—I do so regularly—and seek to organise delegations. However, if a request to meet a delegation is refused by a Minister, it is much easier to try to reverse that decision if the House is sitting, because I can then use the various available avenues to pursue that matter.
The beauty of the House sitting is not so much that Ministers are present and respond to questions as that civil servants are available to respond on behalf of Ministers, because they try to protect Ministers from criticism. If they know that a Minister is to be criticised in the House, they will respond to that. During the recess, if I write a letter to a Minister and do not receive an answer, all I can do is to write again or telephone the Minister's private secretary to try to get a response. If the House is sitting, I can table a written question bout when I will receive a proper answer. One is always then told that the formal answer is on its way, or that it is in one's pigeonhole awaiting collection. Hon. Members may be able to write to Ministers, ring a private secretary, try to organise a delegation or issue a press release, but the success of such procedures is much more likely if the House is sitting.
We should not have a break of three months when avenues of representation are denied our constituents. We should follow the pattern advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley), of a parliamentary Session of four weeks, followed by a week's break, which could be called a "constituency" week. During that week, constituency meetings, activities and visits could be organised. If the House does not sit for a week, the other avenues of representation available to us—early-day motions and questions—are not greatly harmed. A three-month break does terrible harm to them.
A six-week summer recess, which allows for a holiday and a party conference, would be sufficient, as long as that break was built into the year so that we knew when it would occur. If we had a constituency week, hon. Members would no longer be able to argue with the Whips about why they should be away from the House because of pressing constituency duty. The Whips could then say that such Members should perform that duty in the constituency week, just like everyone else. In that way, the House would be more of a hive of activity.
We should not be concerned to debate our private lives and problems in public; we should be much more concerned about our public lives and the public avenues that we seek to use in the House on behalf of our constituents. If we do not want to build a pattern for the work to be done, there are masses of people who are willing to stand for Parliament to do it. It is amazing how people struggle and fight to get here, but, as soon as they do, they want to introduce measures to allow them to get away from the place altogether, or they seek membership of a Select Committee so they can pay visits all over the world. They do their best not to involve themselves in parliamentary procedures, but they are the justification for their presence here in the first place.
§ Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)
I agree with a great many of the prosposals in the report and I agree wholeheartedly with the suggestion that we should sit on Wednesday mornings. I also accept that we should have a certain number of so-called "free" Fridays, designated well in advance. Of course, they would not be free Fridays, but we would be able to make appointments in our consituencies, well in advance, without the danger, which we all face now, of having to cancel them at the last minute because of parliamentary business.
I agree with the suggestion that we should try to announce the dates of the recesses earlier than has been the practice. I confess that, on that issue, I am influenced entirely by my personal and family convenience. I do not think that that should be decisive in our consideration of the report, but this is one issue about which we can safely do something to contribute to our personal and family convenience without damaging our parliamentary functions.
It has been suggested that, if we announced further in advance the date on which the House would rise for a recess, it would establish a buffer. It was argued that that would constitute a challenge or temptation to the Opposition of the day to try to ensure that they ran the Goverment's business up and over that buffer. I cannot see any greater danger of that happening if the date of a recess is established six months in advance rather than just four weeks in advance.
Any advance knowledge of the recess date is a buffer—the present buffer is this Thursday. If the Opposition want to delay parliamentary business so that the Government are faced with the choice of either losing some of their business or suggesting to the House that we should rise at a later date, it is perfectly possible for them to do so. We can make a change to current practice, which would suit us all, without causing any damage to the important role that we like to think we play in the House.
I fear that I disgree with the real kernel of the report: that the House should rise regularly at 10 pm, or at 10.30 pm if one takes into account the Adjournment. I disagree with the natural corollary of that suggestion—that business should be automatically timetabled. Any attempts to establish an arbitrary limit on the time which debates can take can only have one effect—whether or not that is the intention, and I am sure that it is not—which is to curtail the range of opinion expressed and to reduce the scrutiny that we can apply to legislation.
We are all influenced in this matter by our personal experience of the business of the House. Last month, we had a debate on Maastricht, when I was called at about 6.30 am. I was delighted to be called then and to have that opportunity to take part in the debate.
I am only too well aware that, had I not been called at 6.30 am, the alternative for someone like me, who is not a member of the Government, a Privy Councillor or similar grandee, would have been not to participate at all. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] The fact that Opposition Members would he pleased to know that I could not be called in certain debates is the greatest form of flattery. I appreciate it and take the opportunity to thank them. It is the most sincere flattery that I could expect to receive from the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr Cryer).
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
Order. It is not entirely clear to whom the hon. Gentleman is giving way.
§ Mr. Cryer
The comments from these Benches were not derogatory. We were echoing the fact that a Conservative Back Bencher, who is not a Privy Councillor, had an opportunity of being called to speak because the House sat until a late hour. There is considerable resentment on both sides of the House at the fact that, although we are all elected equally, Privy Councillors have more access to the Chamber than the vast majority of hon. Members. Every Back Bencher should have an opportunity to be called in important debates. We were echoing support for the hon. Gentleman's view that the long hours of debate gave him that opportunity. It also gave some of us the opportunity.
§ Mr. Davies
It was not personal flattery but political support from the hon. Gentleman, and I value that, too, very much.
§ Mr. Dalyell
However deeply my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South and I may disagree with the substance of the hon. Gentleman's trite phrase, we would defend to the death his right to say it in the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Davies
Naturally, I reciprocate that sentiment and hope that it is one of the principles that bind hon. Members, from whichever party they come.
§ Mr. Jopling
I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend said about being called at 6 o'clock in the morning in the Maastricht debate. He implied that he was afraid that he could not have done that had the Committee's 10 o'clock recommendations been implemented. May I therefore direct his attention to paragraph 30 of the report, which says:We accept that it should continue to be possible for the Government by means business of the House orders to extend or otherwise alter the time of sittings to meet the general wish of the House, for example, to accommodate those Members wishing to speak in debates involving constitutional or other matters of high importance.The Maastricht debate in particular caused us to include those words in the report so that we could preserve the right of hon. Members to speak at 6 o'clock in the morning if they wish to do so.
§ Mr. Davies
I am grateful for that limited assurance in the report and to my right hon. Friend for drawing my attention to it. I did not miss it when I read the report, as I did with great attention and interest, but I wish that that protection were available for all Bills decided in the House because they are all important. Some may be more important than others, but our views will differ on the relative importance of Bills. As a Back Bencher, I do not accept that the Government should decide whether a Bill is so important or raises issues of such fundamental significance that it may be possible to allow even the most humble hon. Member to express an opinion on it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) triggers my memory about another personal experience. A few days ago, I was able to propose an amendment to the Finance Bill in Committee 876 shortly before breakfast time. I have no doubt that, had his proposals been implemented, I would not have had the opportunity to do so, because the Bill does not raise matters of fundamental constitutional importance.
I described this matter as the kernel of the proposals because it is about the House's ability to act as a check on the Executive and to conduct its traditional role of scrutinising legislation and the day-to-day governance of the nation by the Executive. Those issues were lucidly raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer).
I recognise that there are abuses in the present system. In some ways, the abuses have inspired the desire to look again at our procedures and we should not be afraid to review them. The abuses form the bases of the report, and we all know what those abuses are. They have been referred to several times this afternoon.
There is a degree of filibustering in this place and I thought that the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) was a little self-righteous in saying that he had given up filibustering many years ago. He may not know that his party has not given it up in the past few years. Since I have been in this place, I have often listened to filibusters on private legislation here in the Chamber, and in Committees on public Bills upstairs, and they can be excruciating in the early hours of the morning, as they are intended to be. To respond to filibustering and to get their business through, the Government must naturally and rightly introduce a timetable motion—a so-called "guillotine". They have had that possibility for 100 years or so.
Those two factors are linked—one is the logical and necessary converse of the other. Both are undesirable, and I deprecate them. But the way to solve an abuse is not necessarily—still less ideally—to throw over the whole system. It is to deal with the abuse and limit, if not totally exclude, that abuse without totally destroying the merits of the system.
Although this is not the right time or place to examine proposals for dealing with abuses, we should look again at your right, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that of your colleagues to introduce a 10-minute rule on speeches. At present such a rule is limited to two hours in the evening. Perhaps you should have the right to impose that rule at any hour of the day or night, and Committee Chairmen should also have the right to impose that rule if hon. Members are wasting time and the only alternative is a guillotine motion.
Many of us would regard the imposition of a 10-minute rule on speeches as undesirable, as it is in many respects. Although the hon. Member for Copeland made it clear why it is undesirable, it would be more desirable than maintaining the dialogue of filibuster and guillotine, which too often happens. It would be much more desirable than the institution of a timetable motion, not as an exceptional measure but as part of the normal Standing Orders that govern our business, as proposed in the report.
That is my view on the substance of the report. A secondary point touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South was not about the substance of the proposals and the likely practical consequence of implementing them but about the appearance of the proposals and the signal that will be received outside the House, intended or not, if we change 877 our Standing Orders along the proposed lines. I agree.with my hon. Friend that people would receive an unfortunate signal.
We live in a world in which far too many people find excuses for doing less. The hon. Member for Bradford, South will be on his feet again when I say that the European Community is proposing a working time directive in an attempt to make it illegal for anyone to work more than 48 hours a week. The trade unions are arguing for 37 or 35-hour weeks—as short as possible. A certain number of general practitioners are currently lobbying and writing to me suggesting that they be relieved of their 24-hour, round-the-clock responsibility for their patients. I note, however, that in many other contexts doctors are only too ready to insist on exclusive responsibility for their patients.
I fear that, if the House agreed to measures that would limit our hours or, at least, cut debate arbitrarily at a certain time, it would be thought—no doubt unjustifiably—that we had adopted those measures largely for our own convenience, rather than for the benefit of those whom we serve, or for the greater efficiency of the institution that we are all proud to serve. That would be very unfortunate; but, in the final analysis, we should take account of such factors. We must be governed in this matter, as in others, by our political and constitutional principles and our view of the likely impact on the workings of the House of any alteration in its procedures. Nevertheless, I feel that it would be wrong for a debate such as this to contain no reference to what is admittedly a secondary aspect.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and his colleagues: they have produced an excellent report and there is no doubt that they have satisfied a widespread feeling in the House that a review of our operations was needed. I hope, however, that my right hon. Friend will understand when I say that, in the light of the considerations that I have mentioned, I shall find it necessary to oppose the essential elements of the proposal if they come to a vote.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I apologise for my absence at the beginning of the debate. I found myself in a position in which many hon. Members are caught: as a member of the Select Committee on Information, I was required to attend to provide a quorum. It is a little ironic that hon. Members can be torn between the requirements of a Select Committee and the desire to be in the Chamber to comment on a report such as this.
I very much enjoyed sitting on the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, and I also enjoyed the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). What emerged chiefly from the report, however, was the absence of a consensus. The best that could be hoped for was give and take on both sides, and some progress on the basis that most people were dissatisfied with our present hours. Given all the pressures, it was not a bad report, and I put my name to it for that reason; but I should much prefer the House to sit regularly much earlier in the day. I think that 11.30 am would be a much better starting time, and that Question Time would 878 be better reported then. Many of my constituents would like to be able to watch our proceedings on television at lunchtime rather than in the middle of the afternoon.
Let me stress that most members of the Select Committee—and, I suspect, most hon. Members—do not want shorter hours; they want better hours. We do not object to the length of time for which the House sits. Many of us recognise the importance of expressing minority points of view, especially in the case of debates such as the one on Maastricht. We should, however, prefer as much debate as possible to take place during daylight hours, when it is likely to be reported, rather than late at night—on occasion, well into the early hours of the morning.
Having said that I am firmly in favour of better hours, let me add that I believe that that can be achieved without the timetabling of all Bills. It was unnecessary to bring that into the report. If we are to scrutinise the way in which Bills are handled, we should do so in some detail, rather than introducing the subject by the back door. Timetabling would transfer a great deal of power from Opposition to Government, which would prove very unsatisfactory.
The hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and others have claimed that they can find no examples of the Opposition stopping a Bill's passage by using time—filibustering, perhaps. Of course that should not happen: if a Government have a majority, they should be entitled to get their legislation through. Nevertheless, I could cite many instances in which sensible use of time by the Opposition has persuaded the Government to modify legislation, and a useful exercise has resulted.
An example is the Education Act 1980. The Committee stage—when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was on the Front Bench—took long enough to enable people outside to organise opposition to the proposals to remove free school travel. Campaigns by the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches were not sufficient to persuade enough Conservative Members to throw out that part of the Bill, but they did persuade enough of their Lordships to do so, and it was lost. I believe that, if that Bill had been timetabled from the beginning, the Government would have insisted on pushing it through in a shorter time, and it would have been impossible for outside organisations to act.
A less controversial example is the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and I were members of the Committee, and Denis Howell—now in the other place—was on the Front Bench. Denis Howell did not want to be in the building a minute after 10 pm if he could avoid it, but on that Committee he carefully paid out the time to the Government. On some occasions, he stopped the Committee; on others he kept us on one point for the whole morning. As a result, he secured a number of concessions. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow managed to keep us up for nearly two hours after midnight on one occasion: again, concessions were obtained from the Government. The Bill was not fantastically controversial in party political terms, but I would argue that that was a sensible use of time by the Opposition. Improvements were made as a result.
Just before the election, we debated the Transport and Works Bill 1992, whose aim was to rid the Chamber of private Bills. We nearly secured an agreement between the Front Benches; the Bill could have been dealt with in four sittings without much difficulty. My hon. Friends the 879 Members for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) and for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), and one or two other Opposition Members, were not very happy with that proposal. After they had taken up nearly a whole morning with points that the Minister did not find particularly exciting, he suddenly decided that, given the approaching election, he had better have a look at the points that we were making about representations from the Inland Waterways Board and so forth. Within virtually one sitting, he had produced a number of concessions.
That too, was a good use of time. A coupe of academics outside the House told me that they were very puzzled by what had happened: a whole morning was taken up with pointless debate, and, following a rushed procedure in the afternoon, the Minister made a series of what were in effect concessions. That made no sense to people outside the House, but every member of the Committee understood what was going on. The threat of lengthy proceedings concentrated the Minister's mind, and we knew that he had to make some attempt to meet the Opposition's demands.
It would be a mistake to hand power from Opposition to Government, mostly because the House now deals with Bills in a very inadequate way. We need to examine our whole method of dealing with public Bills. If it then seems more sensible for the House to impose a timetable, let us do that; but we must examine the procedure first, rather than imposing a guillotine on all Bills and continuing to deal with them inadequately.
I stress that there is far too short a time between publication of a Bill and Second Reading in this House. Outside groups hardly have a chance to get hold of a Bill, let alone to read it; they certainly do not have time to put their case to Members of Parliament before the Second Reading debate. Furthermore, sometimes, when a Second Reading debate takes place on the Monday of one week, the Bill goes into Committee the following week, so it is extremely difficult for outside organisations to make their representations. There should be more time between publishing a Bill and Second Reading, and between Second Reading and Committee stage.
Committee proceedings can also be a farce. Many people outside want to make representations about a Bill. On the whole, t hey have to make them through Opposition Members, although sometimes they will find one or two willing Conservative Members to make them. Would it not be far better to set up a public system so that these people can make representations directly to the Government and to members of the Committee? Such a procedure came into being with Special Standing Committees. It was used about three times, and because Ministers felt that they did not do very well out of it, it was not used again.
It would be far better to put all Bills through that system of scrutiny than to continue making people outside submit representations at second hand to Members, who then try to dream up amendments—often only dodgily in order—to make their point. It would be far better to have a Special Standing Committee to examine a Bill—a great improvement, in short.
After the Committee comes the Report stage. When I came to the House, I thought that Report stages were well attended, but for several recent Bills, those stages have badly attended. Half the members of a Committee do not bother to come, and virtually no other Members turn up. Report stages have been devalued in many senses. The first part of a Report stage—dealing with representations made 880 in Committee—could be effected by the recommittal of the Bill. At that time, we could find out whether the Government had met the undertakings that they gave in Committee. There is no need for the whole House to go into that sort of detail. Points of principle should of course be dealt with on the Floor of the House.
In recent years, Report stages have often been hijacked by people interested in a subject that is only tangential to a Bill. A couple of environment Bills, covering a wide range of environmental issues, have been dominated on Report by the issue of dogs. That is extremely important, but I can well understand the resentment felt by members of the Committee, who, having gone through all the detailed work on the Bill, find that a new clause on dogs dominates the Report stage. We need carefully to examine the opportunities to bring in new clauses on Report.
Report stages can also be hijacked by people running a wholly different exercise, which has nothing to do with the Bill but something to do with another argument between Opposition and Government. We ought to leave the timetabling of Bills out of any discussion of improving the hours and let the Procedure Committee be set up again with the task of scrutinising the manner in which Bills are dealt with, to try to improve our scrutiny of them. Unless that is done, we could begin to rush into timetabling Bills, with the result that they are discussed far worse than they were before.
I must tell enthusiasts for guillotines that it is always possible to manipulate them. Once a line has been drawn, it is always possible to ensure that the debate that comes first after the line is not the debate of major substance—the latter gets squeezed. With timetable after timetable, I have seen Ministers encouraging Back Benchers to spend half an hour or 45 minutes on minor amendments so that the crucial one on which the Opposition want to concentrate the Minister's mind and the press's attention is squeezed out and not given as much time as it deserves. If we go in for the regular timetabling of Bills, more and more of this manipulation will occur.
As long as Bills are not timetabled, the Opposition are left with an area in which they can exert pressure on the Government. We have our formal proceedings, and we also have informal proceedings under which the usual channels meet to argue over how time should be allocated, when the Government should make a statement, and so on. The Government can always claim that they have a majority and can get their legislation through. The Opposition's only power is to be awkward and to make a nuisance of themselves.
Sometimes, when one or two of my hon. Friends have been involved in the Front-Bench negotiations, they have asked me to cause a bit of trouble and raise a few points of order—we all know that they are really points of disorder. They have asked me to make a row in the Chamber, thereby possibly enabling them to get a Minister to come and make a statement or give an answer. It is very difficult to keep such points in order while including a political message. An advantage of keeping Bills open-ended is that, instead of causing a row in the Chamber, we can threaten a series of votes. It is much better for the dignity of the House to be able to call a series of votes and to be able to make it clear that the Opposition are not happy with the negotiations through the usual channels than to raise points of order and make a row in the Chamber.
881 The more we remove the opportunities for the Opposition to make these points, the more we will end up like some other domocratic assemblies, in which Members have to be thrown out or sittings suspended. If the House wants to retain an effective safety valve, it should look very closely before introducing guillotines on all Bills. That would merely remove one more way in which the Opposition can show their displeasure.
I hope that, in the next 12 months, the Government will try to reduce the likelihood of our having to sit after 10 pm. I hope that we can try Wednesday morning sittings. I should like to adopt a much more radical approach and have the House meet each morning at 11.30. But it would be too high a price to pay for improving the hours if all legislation were to be guillotined. That would greatly reduce the powers of the Opposition legitimately to oppose the Government.
§ 8.7 pm
§ Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)
Originally, I had no intention of speaking in this debate—[HON. MEMBERS: "Until the Whips told you to."] Funnily enough, that was not the reason—I have been spurred into making this modest contribution by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) and by what I detect to be a relentless pressure from some quarters to change the procedures of the House for social rather than for good procedural reasons.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth, who has temporarily left the Chamber, referred to the new boys perhaps needing more time to consider the changes proposed—[Interruption.] I am glad to see that my hon. Friend has returned. On my own behalf and, I suspect, on behalf of many other new Members on both sides of the House, I must point out that we revere the procedures of this House. Indeed, it was the reputation and historic fame of this Chamber which prompted us to seek election in the first place.
§ Mr. Tredinnick
I said that the debate was about giving new Members a chance to speak on the topic.
§ Mr. Duncan
I take my hon. Friend's point.
To many of us who have just been elected, there can be no greater compliment than to be called a parliamentarian. Anyone who adds to the reputation of the House deserves a higher compliment than many who have held the highest offices of state, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) on the evident sanity of his Committee's recommendations. However, I endorse them with some reluctance, because I do not want to see fast changes. Morning sittings are totally inconsistent with having members of the Executive also Members of the legislature.
§ Mr. Duncan
My hon. Friend says that that is poppycock. When she was a Minister how could she have organised her busy diary if she had been liable to be called here at any moment under the legitimate procedures of the House?
§ Mrs. Currie
My hon. Friend is doing very well so far. I was called here. Ministers are frequently called to various Committees—including, for example. the new European Standing Committee, of which I am a volunteer member.
§ Mr. Duncan
I bow to my hon. Friend's greater experience. Nevertheless, if the House is in permanent session in the morning, that will increase the difficulty of organising ministerial diaries.
§ Mr. Cryer
I give the organisation of ministerial diaries a low priority. However, on Tuesdays and Thursdays there are morning sittings of Standing Committees, which are often attended by Ministers. There are also morning Committees on Wednesdays at which affirmative resolutions are often dealt with. It would be difficult to organise morning sittings of the House and enable hon. Members to work in Committees as well on those three mid-week mornings.
§ Mr. Duncan
For once, I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman. Any proposal for morning sittings in the Chamber merely compounds the problem that he has properly described.
The Committee does not propose electronic voting, but we have to look to our public because such voting is widely discussed. I abhor such voting. We have not been elected to sit in a queue pressing buttons. How can we know that the right person is pushing the right button'? What procedural problems will arise from a blown fuse? Anyone who is prepared to register his vote should hold his head high, march through the Lobby and be seen to register his opinion on the record of the House. Electronic voting is no more desirable than the replacement of the Speaker by a robot.
A fixed-term Parliament was discussed, and was also raised during the election campaign. I totally reject it. What could be more dangerous to democracy than the Opposition's knowledge that an election would not be called for four or five years? What better encouragement could there be for the Opposition to lie idle and not attack the Government than the knowledge that they will not be called to account in a general election at any time? The proposal is inconsistent with the traditions of the House.
My main argument is that, after 13 years of Conservative government, there is a great danger that any proposal to reform the procedures of the House will be influenced by the stability that the House has enjoyed during that time. In shaping amendments, we must look many decades ahead to possible changes in the party system and to the more acute balance of influence in the House which would make procedure of paramount importance for the workings of the democratic process in the country at large.
After I left school, I watched the debates in 1976 when Government and Opposition were in a delicate balance. I remember the tied vote on the Shipbuilding (Redundancy Payments) Act 1978. Some would argue on good procedural grounds that the vote was not tied at all. I remember the debate on the confidence motion in 1979. In those matters, every procedural device used by the Opposition was of the utmost importance. Perhaps those devices now have limited effect, but we cannot foresee when they might become of supreme importance and perhaps of value to us or to the Opposition.
The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) should continue to filibuster, using every device he can 883 find, because, who knows. in the far distant future that may be of use to my hon. Friends and to me. I am for the reforms, but I say, "Thus Far, but no further."
§ 8.16 Pm
§ Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
The great merit of the speech by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) is that it was made by a new Member. We were told that the debate was for new Members to assess the position following the election and that that was why no decision was taken in the previous Parliament. However, until 10 minutes ago no new Members attempted to speak. The hon. Gentleman finished by saying he supported the recommendations. That was a surprise in view of what he had said earlier in his speech.
I did not come to speak, but, except for two minutes, I have been here for the whole debate. Before I came to the House just over 18 years ago, I heard a Member who is no longer in the House say that we represented our constituents at Westminster and not Westminster in our constituencies. That may have been true in the past, but it is not the case today. I am held as much to account in my constituency for what happens here as I rely on my constituency for the material that I use here to represent my constituents. There is some merit in arguing for constituency days or weeks.
Some years ago I learned about the way the Australian Parliament works. I hasten to add that I did not learn that from a visit there. Because of the distances, it sits for only four weeks at a time so that Members can return to their constituencies. There is some merit in that. I do not accept the argument about the length of recesses. When Parliament is convened after an election it should remain in being. However, it should not be in continuous session.
I have never understood why we cannot table written questions during a recess and have them answered. I have never understood why we cannot table early-day motions during the recess and get them printed on an Order Paper. The one crucial thing we lack during a recess is parliamentary privilege. We have it in a partial, qualified way through letters from Members to Ministers. However, if key issues arise, we should be able to raise them and, by a combination of written questions and early-day motions, with an Order Paper and a weekly Hansard, we could overcome many difficulties.
I do not wish to argue about the number of hours we sit, but, as we are the most centrally governed country in Europe, it is bound to be the case that we sit longer. The Government hold the power in our unitary state. It is not divided as it is, for example, in Germany, which is a federal country. France has an independent form of local government, so it is not necessary for the French Parliament to sit for long hours.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton reminded us of 1976, but I was going to use the example of 1977. When I served on the Committee examining the Finance Bill in 1977 and took part in the debates on Report, I did not need time, I did not need to filibuster and I did not face the threat of a guillotine to stop me and my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise), who then represented Coventry, South-West, to amend the Budget. We were told that we should not have done it, but it was probably one of the most popular moves to benefit the low-paid that we ever made.
884 We used parliamentary procedure, but we used a device that has not been used by Conservative Members in this long period of stability. I will not use the word "courage", because it did not take courage, but we were prepared to use our vote in the way that we saw as best for our constituents. We put them before the Government of the day, not before our party because our party policy was clear. In the past 13 years, not enough Conservative Members have been prepared to do that. I remember the Monday on the Report stage of the poll tax Bill, when we debated the Mates amendment. The Opposition had agreed that it should be debated on that day. The Government's majority was 25, so obviously many Conservative Members voted against the Government, but such examples are few and far between.
We boast that we are the oldest Parliament in Europe, implying that we are the best, but we are the only Parliament in western, industrialised, old-style, democratic Europe that works on the basis of the whipping system, patronage, Orders in Council and guillotines by the Government of the day. That is a powerful combination. It is difficult for us to boast to other parliamentarians about how good and strong our Parliament is when the Executive have at their disposal all the weapons to manipulate Parliament, to snuff out opposition and to create circumstances in which Government Back Benchers do not feel free to speak and vote as they ought to.
I am not in favour of rebellion every day. That is stupid, because one devalues one's vote and one's voice. However, all rebellion has been snuffed out over the past 13 years, and that is sad.
§ Mr. Bennett
Will my hon. Friend accept that the attraction of the Rooker-Wise-Lawson amendment was that the Government of the day could not gag my hon. Friend because there was no procedure for timetabling the Committee stage of the Finance Bill? Therefore, as long as my hon. Friend had the courage to stick to the amendment, it was bound to be debated and there was bound to be an opportunity to have a vote on it.
§ Mr. Rooker
That is the case. The Government of the day accepted the amendment and it was never challenged on the Floor of the House. That is unusual, because normally Governments seek to overturn defeats in Committee. On that occasion, they did not do so, but that was probably because they knew that they were going to lose because the amendment was so popular. My hon. Friend is right. The guillotine was never a threat. It did not figure in our calculations. We tabled an amendment and we chose to vote for it or to abstain.
It is a pity that the Leader of the House is not here, because we supported his amendment on that occasion. The first amendment on upgrading tax allowances was his, but, because we voted for it, he never got the credit for it. The indexation came later in the day during a whole series of votes. I am sure that the Leader of the House remembers it, because I saw him look across the Chamber at an earlier speaker.
After 18 years here, I am still a reformer, but I would not go for electronic voting. I see merit in what is perceived as our arcane system of voting. However, I would go for timetabling of Bills. When we talk about timetabling, we think about guillotining, because that is what we are used to dealing with. However, if the timetable were based on an end date—by and large, the Government of the day will 885 get their way provided that they can carry their Members with them—we could agree on the way that the available time was used. I do not mean just a number of hours but the time between one day of debate and another.
The amount of time devoted to the Bill should be within the control of the Opposition, and if we chose to debate all through the night on one occasion, that would be our decision. If we had the final decision on how the time was divided, we could choose the key subjects, as I said earlier in an intervention.
The poll tax Bill spent 200 hours in Committee, but, out of 200 clauses, we debated only about 40.
§ Mr. Rooker
My hon. Friend reminds me of how few it was; he served on the Committee with us.
We hardly got anywhere. We never debated any of the business taxes or other important matters. However, when we had five days on Report under the guillotine, the Opposition chose what was debated each day and we chose what time matters were debated each day. On behalf of the Opposition, I drafted the business statement. Ministers did not care. They told us that we had five days and should use them as we liked. We raised all the issues that we wished to raise, although we felt deprived because we had not raised them in Committee. That is an inefficient way to do it, but if we were given an end date and the Opposition were given some control over the way the time was used, that would be a good system.
I agree that there should be longer time between the publication of a Bill and Second Reading and then between Second Reading and the Bill going into Committee. That is crucial. This recent nonsense of the Bill being published on a Friday, Second Reading being on the Monday a week after, 10 days away, the Committee of Selection meeting on the Wednesday and the Bill in Committee on the following Tuesday has to stop, especially for important Bills. That procedure is an affront to those outside on whose behalf we are legislating. Any agreed arrangement on timetabling must include an improvement on that practice.
The idea of Fridays off is a good one, but it must go with early Thursday evenings. The one without the other would be ludicrous. We can all swap our diaries showing what we do on Fridays. It has been said that we can choose to come to Friday debates is we wish, but it is not like that. Many of us are terrified of entering the ballot for motions for Fridays when we look at what is in our diaries for Fridays. We know that we will have given a firm commitment to a whole series of people and organisations—chambers of commerce, schools and others whom we cannot meet on a Saturday or Sunday.
Many more Members of Parliament enter the ballot for motions to be debated on Mondays because that does not interfere with their constituency time, which is extremely valuable. Front-Bench speakers have a similar problem. They do not know whether they will be called for Front-Bench duty because the subject chosen—a choice out of their control—is one on which they have to reply. That is true of the Consolidated Fund as well. There is a compromise to be reached, whether we do it by the Select 886 Committee report recommendation or by the more radical proposal of a week off every four or five weeks. There is scope for compromise, but it must be reached quickly.
I fear that we shall return in October and face a delay of a few weeks before there is a substantive debate. We shall then be told, "We cannot alter the Sittings of the House this Session. The revised sittings must start in November 1993 because of the legislation that is already under way. We must consider Ministers' diaries and the programme of parliamentary questions and answers. Days have already been set aside for private business on Fridays." We shall be under pressure to delay the implementation of anything that we agree until the beginning of the next Session after we return in October. That will be sad. There should be best endeavours to implement the maximum number of agreed recommendations from January next year. That would be to the benefit of Members and of those whom we are here to represent.
One or two Members have spoken—it is their prerogative to do so—as if we are proceeding for our convenience. We are all privileged to be elected to represent our constituents. We are the last port of call for many of them. In many instances, we are the only voice they have in our archaic electoral system. That is something that I do not propose to go into. I could have been misled by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, who talked about fixed-term Parliaments, a subject which is not part of the report. If it were, I would have tabled amendments with a view to securing a longer debate.
We Members are transient; we are passing through. It is important that we think about our procedures for the future and learn the lessons of the past. I am glad that I have had the experience of sitting on both sides of the Chamber. I fear for those who have sat on only one side of it. When I listened to the previous debate on these matters—it took place before the general election—I thought, "There are going to be some new Ministers with a bit of luck after 9 April. Will this be good or bad?" The issue is whether changes will be good or bad for Parliament. It does not matter whether they will be good or bad for the party which is in opposition or in government. Some of the recommendations will be to the advantage of the Government, but others in the package will be of advantage to the Opposition. As a package, they are of advantage to the House. That is the basis on which we should arrive at our decisions.
We all have experience both inside and outside the House and I hope that we are all mature enough now—we have been able to talk about these matters in two debates and we have listened to at least one new Member voice his opinions, an opportunity which the debate was designed to present—to make some early decisions and to sell them to the country.
I caution any hon. Member who has not attended the debate and who has the temerity to enter the Chamber tomorrow to say, "Well, you spoke and voted for shorter hours of sitting and shorter weeks yesterday and you want more money tonight." We shall get ignorant contributions of that sort tomorrow from Members who have not been in their places this evening. The fact is that we need better resources. We need a better-informed House so that we are able more effectively to challenge the Executive. I say that on behalf of both Opposition and Government Back-Bench Members. Hours of sitting and resources are separate matters.
887 Over the past 13 years, since a Conservative Government have been in office, I have spent 11 years on the Opposition Front Bench. One of my reasons for having two years off it was to get some experience of Select Committee work. The two years that I spent on the Public Accounts Committee taught me more about the machinery of government than all the time that I spent on the Opposition Front bench. Those two years were extremely valuable. I know that that view is shared by many hon. Members.
There were many times on Mondays and Wednesdays when I regretted that I had to leave the Chamber to attend sittings of the PAC. The fact is, however, that that business is crucial. The Committee was able to bring civil servants to account. It was not possible to exert that discipline over Ministers because they do not appear before the Committee. As I have said, the work of the PAC is extremely valuable. We must take cognisance of that and, as individual Members, take a decision. We cannot be in Committee and on the Floor of the House at the same time.
On the other hand, that is no excuse for saying that we should not change the sitting hours of the House because it would mean that it would not be possible to do our work in Committee. It is vital that we should accept the Wednesday morning experiment. If that means that the parliamentary Labour party has to change the time of its meetings, that is neither here nor there. It will be able to find another slot in the week.
By and large, I support the package before us. What can be agreed must be implemented from January 1993. There must be no messing about with delays until the next Session. We can make adjustments to the decisions that are already being made about Friday sittings to meet everyone's convenience when it comes to private Members' Bills. That can be done without any difficulty. I implore the Government—it is in their gift—to organise our procedures to ensure that that happens.
§ Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)
The fact that I stand in my place in splendid isolation has more to do with my being at the tail end of a flu virus than interest in the report. The thing that worries me is that I agree with just about everything that was said by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker)—a unique experience in my nine years in the House. The hon. Gentleman's contribution was thoughtful and I cart think of few points which would cause me to disagree with him.
I think especially of the hon. Gentleman's warning to my right hon. and hon. Friends about thinking of being on the Government Benches for ever. I fear that there is a tendency for some of my colleagues to think that their present position will ever he so. That is why it is important that the House should proceed with great care when it comes to change its procedures. That applies especially to those of us who sit on the Government Benches in the belief, perhaps, that we shall always occupy them. The same point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan). I suspect that, by the time he finds himself on the Opposition Benches, he will be the Father of the House, so he has some time to prepare himself.
I was intrigued to see how the Committee had come to terms with and arrived at a balance between those who are 888 primarily London-based Members—sadly, not all of them represent London constituencies, but they are capital-based Members—and those of us who, perhaps by perversity of nature, insist on being thought to be, and adamantly continue to be, provincial Members.
I have always been a reluctant reader of the Evening Standard because I do not wish to be sucked in, as some Members are, to living in London and being in London. I suppose that that is why my wife and I have always ensured that our small flat is an especially grotty one and not one in which we wish to spend a great deal of time. Like many Members—perhaps younger Members—my family remain in my constituency, which is in Shropshire. Anyone who has visited Shropshire—particularly Shrewsbury, which I am blessed to represent—will understand immediately why it is preferable to be thought of as a provincial Member and to be based in such a place to being a London Member who makes the occasional visit to his constituency to make sure that ail is well.
I suspect that the days are long since gone when Members could get away with an annual visit to their constituencies, with the station master meeting the train wearing a bowler hat and white gloves. The pressures upon Members—this is certainly the view of colleagues who have been in the House for far longer than myself—have undoubtedly increased considerably. That is why I am particularly pleased with the Committee's conclusions on morning sittings and the fact that it did not plump for the four mornings per week option. Those of us who live in our constituencies and spend three, four or five hours travelling to London need Monday mornings to get to Westminster. If those mornings were not available to us, we would have to travel on Sundays.
The press comments on how the House works and the long summer recess, which it describes as a holiday. It often does not focus on our working week. Over 25 years in politics and nearly 10 years in the House, I have seen no reference to the fact that many Members spend at least a day a week getting backwards and forwards from their constituency to the House. It seems to be thought that we materialise in the House at will.
As I have said, I was intrigued to see how the Committee would arrive at a balance between those who have families in London and therefore are probably quite keen to be away from the House at 6 pm, and those of us who have families in constituencies away from London, whose wives are probably not too keen on the idea of our being footloose and fancy free after 6 pm. One of my wife's great attributes is that she has steadfastly refused to take a close interest in politics. She has been concerned that the House will change its routine and that I shall be able to go—perhaps with my hon. Friends the Members for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), whom I see in his place, and for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)—into the wilds of Soho to be led astray, for want of parliamentary business to keep me occupied.
On behalf of Mrs. Conway, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Committee, that she is glad that the House will not adjourn too early in the evening, so she will know exactly where I shall be during an evening in London alone.
I am pleased to note that recommendation 47 will give the House the opportunity to meet on a Wednesday morning. As I was not in the House when the experiment was tried some years ago, I have no idea how it will work, but many of us are looking forward to it. It is a cautious attempt, but it is worth a try.
889 I am also pleased with recommendation 82—something about which my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary is less enthusiastic—on the setting of the parliamentary year. For many hon. Members, much depends on the ages of their children, whether or not they are at school and even whether they want their company. I remember that, in my first year as a Member of Parliament, I was cautioned by a senior and outgoing Member about my enthusiasm for the House to rise early in the summer so that I could see my children during the summer recess, rather than going into recess only couple of weeks before they were back at school. He predicted that within two decades I would be wishing that the House would sit throughout the entire summer period so that I had an excuse not to return to the family. I am glad to say that I have not quite reached that stage.
The media will write tomorrow night about secretarial allowances, just as they have written about summer recesses. I am not sure what they mean by "summer holidays". When I was a new Member of Parliament, I visited a factory in Shrewsbury—a large employer—during my first summer recess. Its marketing director was giving a presentation about the work of that wonderful organisation. He summed up by saying to me, "While you are on your summer holidays, we are keeping the wheels of industry turning."
I have had enough of that twaddle. My idea of a summer holiday is to be in my Shropshire garden with the children, not sitting in a factory listening to its tales of woe, however justifiable they may have been. That chap spoke as though sitting listening to him whining was a holiday. It is quite a perverse view, but many of our constituents reading the newspapers think that the summer recess is a summer holiday. Since that experience, I have not been afraid to remind my constituents that it is not.
The House sat until 2 August one year during my time here. As many people know, the Scottish schools return quite early, and even schools in England are now returning earlier than they used to. The amount of time available to a Member to spend a holiday with his young children is nothing like the length of the summer recess, which the editors of the tabloids would have our constituents believe is a holiday. The recommendation to specify the Christmas, Easter and Whitsun recesses is welcome, and will be even more so for those Members with young children.
Recommendation 84 to rise by mid-July is good. I hate being in London in July. I know why we have to be here, but it has nothing to do with parliamentary business or the timetable of Governments—
§ Mr. Conway
It may be because of the Buckingham palace garden parties, or even the Prime Minister's receptions, but I think that it has more to do with the timing of the party conferences. The Labour and Tory party conferences are held in October—the Liberal Democrats have theirs in September—and the House cannot sit during those great occasions. Instead, we have to be in a sweltering London in July and fight our way through the crowds of tourists, mostly American, to get to the House. That enables us to be present and to cheer at our party conferences, which we all loyally love to do. The 890 recommendation to rise by mid-July is not over-ambitious. Indeed, if it were to be early July, so much the better. If that also gave us an excuse not to attend the party conferences, that would be even more welcome.
The proposal to announce two weeks' business in advance is helpful. The hon. Member for Perry Barr spoke about organising constituency events. It is difficult for our constituents to understand the short notice of proposed business. Most of them have no idea that we find out the following week's business on the previous Thursday. They cannot believe that we operate in such an inefficient and unclear way, but we do. Even if the House takes a long time to push through the report—which it shows every sign of doing—I hope that my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary will look kindly on introducing that reform of his own volition. I do not think that it would require a change in the procedure of the House and it would be a welcome gesture. Most hon. Members enjoy being in their constituencies and want to plan for that.
The old adage that we have to be in Parliament to represent our constituency, rather than representing it in the provinces, is still frequently heard, but times and demand have changed and constituents will no longer put up with an absentee Member of Parliament. Anyone who goes about his business in that way will get short shrift, not only from his constituents but from his constituency party. The demands upon Conservative Members have changed during my 25 years in politics. Perhaps the Labour party has always ensured that its Members of Parliament are accountable to its organisational structure, but that is a fairly recent innovation for the Tory party—although it is clearly growing. The House must take account of that and respond to it.
I have my doubts whether the proposed changes will make us a more effective legislature. I often think that, as a Chamber, our only way to control the Executive would be to make talking or any form of communication between the usual channels a capital offence. Then Members of Parliament might have some small say in the way in which the House regulates itself and tries to monitor what the Executive are doing.
This is a thorough report, which we considered before the general election and are considering again today. I share the view of many hon. Members that the recommendations should be introduced soon, rather than drifting on towards next year or even the end of the session. It is not an over-radical report, so it should not worry Members. Provided that the House accommodates Members of Parliament with independent spirits and minds, such as the hon. Members for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), and allows them to keep us here—even those Members who support the Government—when we do not want to be here so that they can make difficult comments, the system cannot be too bad. It is not a radical report, but it is long overdue. The sooner the House endorses it, the better.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
Consensus in this Chamber is the worst aspect of Parliament at work. I well recall the day in 1981 when it was agreed that the Consolidated Fund should be changed to a series of Adjournment debates and that the holiday Adjournment 891 debates should he limited to three hours. The debates used to be open-ended and people could come here in the knowledge that they could take part in a debate. The Consolidated Fund Bill debate lasted all night and was regulated by hon. Members. They would put down their names to speak on a particular subject and those subjects would be debated for three, four or five hours, while smaller debates were over in half an hour. The system worked extremely well.
There was an awkward point—the Government had to get 100 Members here for the closure motion in the morning and 100 for the closure motion on the holiday Adjournment debates. That was just a little inconvenient. One day, the Labour Opposition ran away with the debate and took the Consolidated Fund debate through the night and the next day. We said to the Government, "Give us some concessions on the Housing Bill or we will keep running." We gained important concessions.
What did we do then? We said that there was a strong chance that at the next election in 1983 we could form the Government, so it would he awkward to have to find 100 Members for the closure motion in the morning. Therefore, the Labour party agreed with the Conservatives to abolish that practice and instead have a series of fixed Adjournment debates. That was very neat and tidy, but we can no longer run away with the debate. That gives the Government an advantage.
There is a rich stench of that around the report. A number of Labour Members thought that the report was not a bad idea and that the timetabling of Bills would be very neat and tidy when we formed the Government in April. Of course, the election did not turn out as was intended. That is one of the problems with democracy—we can never be sure of the outcome. Now that things did not turn out as we expected, Labour Members are changing their minds and retreating. That is right and proper.
The name of the Chairman of the Committee was announced before the membership of the Committee, which is pretty unusual. The reason was that the Committee was chosen to produce a result. The result was intended to be to make everything here neat and tidy. One of the great advantages of this place is that it is not neat and tidy. I have been in a neat and tidy place for five years; it is called the European Parliament. I call it an assembly because it is not a legislative body. Everything there is organised by the parties. It had electronic voting which used to break down regularly, although it was state of the art electronics, and which was the subject of an enormous amount of fiddling.
Simple systems may be old-fashioned and unpopular. Going through the Lobbies is a simple system and if one supports the Government, one can get hold of Ministers. If one is an Opposition Member, one can also get hold of Ministers if one wants to twist their arms about something. It is very difficult to cheat. That is not much of an issue at the moment, but if there is a minority Government or a Government with a majority of two or three, cheating may become an important issue on special occasions. We should not ignore that factor in modernising Parliament because of considerations of fashion.
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)
One of my first experiences here was the debate on the Ways and Means resolutions. The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) may recall that he forced Conservative 892 Members through the Lobbies time after time. Opposition Members clocked up between nine and 15 votes each time, whereas my hon. Friends clocked up about 250 votes. If we had had electronic voting, the whole procedure could have gone through in a short time. In the event, it took more than three hours. That time could have been used for useful debate. Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that it was rather a waste of time and that electronic voting would have helped?
§ Mr. Cryer
I do not want to go too far down that road because the subject is not part of the report. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that in this place, we have the old platitude of checks, balances and leverage. The opportunity of voting 10 times is often a useful lever with which the Opposition can gain some concessions from the Government. There are, for example, 10 orders tonight which are to be taken forthwith, which means that they can be voted on. That can be handy if the Opposition want to gain some concessions. It may be relatively trivial, but over a period of weeks it could make things difficult for the Government. I take the view that we could run this place ragged if we set our minds to doing so. It would be awkward, but it is a possibility.
I do not make that comment in a macho spirit of male assertion. Long speeches and voting are nothing to do with assertion of masculinity. They are intended to get concessions from the Government. Hon. Members do not undertake long speeches for the sake of it; the purpose is to try to obtain concessions. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) pointed out that the Opposition used that tactic on the Transport and Works Bill, which was going to go through on an agreed basis in a couple of neat and tidy sittings. As some of us did not like that idea, we spoke lengthily on the sittings motion and we went into detail. Eventually the message got through to the Minister and his hon. Friends that it would be a long and difficult Committee unless some co-operation were established and unless some concessions made. Concessions were produced, the Committee proceedings were good and the Bill was much improved after the Committee stage. That is an important point.
People accuse me—I wince at this—of being a good parliamentarian—[HON. MEMBERS: " Never."] It is pretty dreadful, but they do say that. I have a private list of people who make such accusations. My emphasis is always on the constituency. I have always been a Member of Parliament for marginal seats and I always emphasise the importance of constituency work. In my present constituency, I maintain a full-time office. I do not say that Parliament is everything and then ignore the constituency. My constituency is important, but I do not see that it is necessary to have 10 Fridays off per Session to provide a compulsory opportunity to be in the constituencies.
As I said in an intervention, there is an opportunity for hon. Members to be in their constituencies on many Fridays. People in Bradford, South do not say to me, "Why were you not down there speaking on the disposal of Welsh toxic waste last Friday?" It is not a subject which is greatly debated in Bradford, South. Last Friday was an opportunity for me to spend as much of the day as I could in my constituency. Such opportunities often occur. Fridays provide a valuable opportunity for hon. Members—last Friday, it was Welsh Members—to raise constituency matters in the most important assembly in 893 the country. Getting rid of 10 Fridays is potentially wrong. As usual, it is not the Government who will suffer: it will be Back-Bench Members who suffer. They will also suffer in other ways.
The Committee started off on the wrong basis. There are a few paragraphs at the beginning of the report to justify the Committee's course. It should have begun by asking, "Is Parliament doing a good job? Is it scrutinising all aspects of Government work and ensuring that there is an element of accountability? Can we improve that if we change the hours?" The Committee started, because of the composition of the membership, on the basis of changing the hours and then fitting the scrutiny with the changed hours. The approach was back to front.
The proposals were made under the cloak that women would be more attracted to the idea of entering Parliament if the hours were changed. I do not share that view. People may say, "Of course he would not." I have discussed the matter extensively with my wife, as I am bound to do, and I have not taken a narrow male view. We both take the view that there will always be difficulties for provincial Members. Underlying the report is the convenience of London-based Members, not the convenience of provincial Members.
It is up to the political parties to determine that women should come into this place. There are many able women who are willing and eager to come into Parliament and to serve their party and their constituents here. For a variety of reasons, they do not get in here. Women on the national executive committee of the Labour party must be more determined to put women on short lists. I well recall—this is no reflection on my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), who ran an excellent campaign—that two women were nominated for the by-election short list. Neither was even proposed by any women members of the national executive committee of the Labour party.
Until that kind of omission is rectified, women will find great difficulty in getting elected to this place.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has given way to a provincial female Member of Parliament. I believe that it is exceedingly important that we should be able to rely on Fridays to do things like visit schools. One cannot expect a headmistress to suddenly jack in everything because one is coming to visit the next day because our business has been changed.
We should be able to plan ahead for visits to schools or factories. We should not have to tell people at the last minute that we are descending on them. Such planning is very important for me. Yorkshire may be a little closer to this place, but I have a five-hour journey to get to my constituency and I will value those 10 Fridays.
§ Mr. Cryer
I disagree with the hon. Lady. I believe that hon. Members can plan visits in advance on most Fridays. However, it would be difficult for hon. Members to get away on some Fridays, particularly when there are debates on controversial private Bills. People outside this place may press hon. Members to be present for such debates because of their controversial nature.
I do not believe that the Select Committee report deals adequately with statutory instruments. Many detailed aspects of people's lives, including their benefits, housing 894 and construction and use of motor vehicles are dealt with in statutory instruments. The vast majority of legislation is carried out through delegated legislation: between 1,500 and 2,000 statutory instruments are produced every year.
In 1990–91, just over 100 statutory instruments were prayed against because hon. Members thought that they should be debated and voted on in the Chamber. The Government granted 25 such debates. If hon. Members pray against a negative procedure instrument, unless that prayer is tabled by a Front-Bench spokesman, there is virtually no chance of a debate.
Affirmative statutory instruments are debated automatically. However, the House treats delegated legislation with a significant lack of scrutiny and that is appalling. The Select Committee did not address that problem, although I gave evidence on that. The Committee dismissed my concerns too easily.
It is proposed that, instead of being debated on the Floor of the House late at night, affirmative resolutions should be sent to a merits Committee on a Wednesday morning because that is when such Committees meet. However, private Members' business is also proposed to be taken in Wednesday morning sittings. What happens if hon. Members wish to speak in both debates? They cannot be in both places at the same time. If we are to deal with the affirmative resolutions that are dealt with in this place and with those that are dealt with in Committee, many hon. Members will be involved in those Committees. That proposal is incompatible.
It is unfair that hon. Members should face the alternative of exercising a self-denying ordinance by removing themselves from the Chamber so that they can serve in Committee. The Select Committee report will place more obstacles on the 150 or 200 people in this place who are the workhorses of Parliament. They staff the Committees and frequently take part in debates. If we are to have morning sittings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, there will be more problems if Standing Committees meet at the same time.
There was an agreed timetable on the Broadcasting Bill which was a major piece of legislation. People argue that the timetable procedure ensures that all parts of a Bill are debated. That was not true for the Broadcasting Bill, even though the timetable was voluntary. Large chunks of that Bill were not considered because the Government wanted their business on the Floor of the House. In return for our timetable concessions, we had an extra day on the Floor of the House. The procedure does not work perfectly.
I do not cavil at the timetable on the Broadcasting Bill, although that was not a path that I would have followed. That timetable was introduced by agreement. However, the idea of compulsory timetables gives the Government a big incentive. A Conservative Member said earlier that he and his colleagues were going to speak. Of course they are. Conservative Back Benchers usually do not speak, because they do not want to take up time to justify a guillotine on the Floor of the House.
There was another confession, in this evening of confessions, from a former Minister who said that the thought of a row over a guillotine on a particular subject influences Ministers. It is therefore worth bearing in mind that we can exert pressure in this place.
It is true that some of my hon. Friends do not think that those pressures have been effective, but, when we face a Government with a huge majority of 150 over Labour and 110 overall, it is very difficult to make any indentations on 895 their political progress, but we can do so if we keep up the pressure and keep our wits and eyes about us. We will not do so if we hand an important power to the Government. Conservative Back-Bench Members will then use up the available time under the guillotine and we will lose one of our most important powers. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear:] I am not used to being surrounded by such support.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) mentioned patronage being used to influence procedures. He claimed that comparative European Governments do not have the patronage that exists here through the whipping procedure. They have a system of patronage that is called proportional representation. Proportional representation is of concern of my hon. Friend. When the additional member system or any other list system applies, the relevant political party has enormous patronage. Other Parliaments do not have the problems that we have, because the people who are sent to other Parliaments, having been chosen by the machinery of the party, are clones of the leadership. All the dissidents are sorted out first of all. They never get on to the list in order to be electable. The result is safe, sound, dull assemblies which act as rubber stamps for anything that the leadership puts forward. Patronage comes from outside and makes its will felt inside before one runs into trouble.
One of the strengths of this place is that it is awkward. It is not neat and tidy, but we can use it as a platform—we can state our ideas. Sometimes it is difficult for a party leadership to stop ideas being expressed in this place. That makes it a bit awkward from time to time, but democracies are about awkwardness, about ideas being raised, and about clashes of opinion—even clashes of opinion on the same Benches. We will have clashes over the Maastricht Bill if the Government are silly enough to bring it back.
I do not believe that the report will advantage anybody except London-based Members who want to get home at seven o'clock, safe and sound and in time for tea and crumpets. If one lives in Bradford, that would involve a 400-mile round trip, and one cannot manage to do that. We have a decent system in which we utilise time to the maximum. We can have improvements in Parliament, but not in that respect. The Committee was set up for a certain purpose. I do not think that it is satisfactory. If the report comes back to this place, I hope that there will be lots and lots of amendments—in fact, I want to see it buried under amendments.
§ 9.8 pm
§ Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)
No doubt the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) will keep us up through the night when the matter comes back to the House. We shall look forward to that. I represent a London constituency, but I do not work near enough to go home for tea and crumpets.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Conway) and the hon. Member for Bradford, South summed up my views on the report. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham pointed out many reasons why we need sensible reform of our hours in this place. Equally, the hon. Member for 896 Bradford, South rightly highlighted some reasons for our procedures. We need to get the balance right when we consider the report.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) and the members of his Committee, from both sides of the House, who considered the matters that we have discussed tonight on their attempt to make agreed proposals which might at some point get through the House. However, we should be careful about welcoming those proposals and examine them carefully before we go overboard accepting them.
I hope that hon. Members heard clearly the words of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). He referred to the danger that hon. Members might come late to the proceedings and start talking about Members voting themselves shorter hours. It is not a question of that, and I hope that that will not be written in any newspaper columns. We are talking about making this place more efficient. It is not a question of time off. We seek to ensure that Parliament can do its job, but that legislation is not produced by a set of zombies—as can occasionally be the case when we have been here too many hours and days on the trot.
We seek a double balance. The Executive have a right and a duty to get their business through the House. One way in which they can do that is to produce less business so that it can go through at a more orderly pace and in a shorter time. We must seek a balance between that and the right of Parliament to careful scrutiny of legislation.
The other balance is between the mandate of a Government and the opportunities for opposition in Parliament. I do not refer only to opposition across the Floor of the House, although that is crucial to parliamentary democracy. If the Opposition do not have any weapons within the parliamentary system, there ceases to be any reason for them to be here. That is why I urge caution on my colleagues about removing the weapon of time from the parliamentary Opposition. If that weapon goes, there is some danger that opposition will leave this place.
I refer also to opposition between ideas. We have often seen private Members' Bills blocked. My Bill was blocked because Members talked it out. That was their absolute right. I disagreed with their tactics and their view, but it was a perfectly reasonable use of parliamentary time to block the progress of a Bill by talking it out. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) was correct when he said that often the judicious and sensible use of time produces amendments and concessions which can make for better legislation or, indeed, stop legislation and give time for second thoughts.
Like the hon. Member for Bradford, South, I do not like the idea of morning sittings. Parliament has other duties in the mornings. It is not that I have an outside job; I do not. My morning work is connected with my parliamentary duties. Like those of many hon. Members who represent inner-city seats, vast numbers of my constituents write to me. I have some 50 casework letters every day. That is not unusual among inner-city Members. We need time to deal with that case work. Ministers also need time to deal with work in their Departments.
I slightly resent the time when I have to sit upstairs in Committee while a debate is taking place in the Chamber in which I wish to take part. That happens often enough now, when debates in the Chamber and in Committee clash only after 4.30 pm. It would be doubly bad if debates 897 took place in the Chamber in the mornings, even if only on Wednesdays. I therefore urge caution also on Wednesday morning sittings.
The recommendation to timetable Bills makes sense up to a point. Timetabling of the Report stage would probably make good sense. It might answer the suggestion made during the proceedings of the Select Committee that Report stages should be limited and the Bill sent back for a further stage of consideration in Committee. The sensible timetabling of the Report stage would ensure that all the issues that should come out in the debate did so.
I suspect, however, that the timetabling would have to be decided according to a procedure other than the whims and wishes of the two Front Benches, especially the Opposition Front Bench. We must ensure that the wishes of the House determine the subjects to be debated.
It is reasonable for us to consider ending earlier on Thursdays, but the House might consider the following alternative. Recently there have been many debates on the Adjournment on Thursdays, and Members have not had to be here to vote. I wonder whether it would be a better use of parliamentary time if it were the normal procedure to have a debate on the Adjournment on Thursdays, enabling us to finish at the normal time. Such debates are often more informed than others.
Perhaps we should also consider having concurrent debates, as is often the practice with orders. Several related subjects could be debated at the same time, with separate votes at the end.
I agree with the proposal that there should be more 10-minute limits on speeches. From reading the report, I am pleased to learn that that would apply to our most senior colleagues as much as to us more ordinary mortals. I am also pleased with the suggestion that the 10-minute rule for Bills should be left alone.
I am pleased at the proposals on proxy votes for the sick who are genuinely unable to attend. I look forward to finding out how those will be defined to avoid any of the voting abuses that have been mentioned. I suspect that there might be some challenges to those proposals.
I am unashamedly one of those Members who wish us to continue to troop through the Lobby. It is right that we should not be able to hide how we vote but should do so in person, except in the case of illness. The first time one votes against one's party certainly concentrates the mind, although I do not recommend that we do it too often. I vividly remember the first occasion when I did so. I think that it might have been a vote on your amendment, Madam Deputy Speaker, opposing the Government on the ending of dog registration. I did not go through the Lobby lightly. That is one of the procedures and traditions of the House that we should keep, although we might consider our procedures on multiple votes. There have been occasions when we have had to stand up and sit down in the Chamber with fair regularity. Perhaps we could consider group voting through the Lobby.
I welcome the report, and I look forward to the motions which will stem from it. Like the hon. Member for Bradford, South, I hope that we shall be able to vote on the various measures proposed because like him, I suspect that I may agree with some but wish to oppose others.
§ Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)
As a member of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, it gives me pleasure to speak on the report in this new Parliament. My feelings on the report are characterised by one word—timidity. It is not quite like changing the deckchairs on the Titanic, but it is not far from it.
The report is timid in many respects. First, respect for this place is overwhelming. One should be respectful of history and tradition, but in this place respect goes as far as the ridiculous. We refer to our constituents in the Gallery as strangers, but none of us referred to any of them as strangers in March and April. Not only were they friends, they were deep friends as they trooped loyally to put their cross for us in the general election so that we could represent them here. Then we have the cheek to call them strangers for the next four or five years before we ask for their vote again. That is one example of the anachronistic practices of this place. It is a museum: it is not designed for the needs of the 20th century.
The report is timid in that, for reasons of time, it did not tackle the wider pressures on the House and Members. Considering the pressures that Members are under in the House and in our constituencies, I feel that our modest contribution could be swept away in the tide of external demands that Members have to face in fully representing our constituents in the latter half of the 20th century.
Fridays have been mentioned. It is proposed that there should be 10 Fridays on which we would be allowed not to be here. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) said, "Yes, a four-day week." I challenge my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who have made that point. There is no question of our having a four-day week. Indeed, we ought to be off every Friday to enable us to go about constituency business. The newly elected hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) nods in agreement. He is a humble Conservative Back Bencher, as I am a humble Labour Back Bencher. During the previous Parliament I went to the school where he was a humble teacher to tell modern studies pupils all about Parliament. That is the kind of thing that I can do only on a Friday: it is a necessary aspect of the job to speak to our young constituents. Reference to Members attending Monday to Thursday as working a four-day week is not only gross cheek but amounts to gross insensitivity to the demands that Members of Parliament face. I for one would not be in any way shy about debating that matter anywhere at any time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) referred to the fact that power is flowing from the Floor of the Chamber to Committees. As a Member elected in 1987 I can say that my most fruitful work here has been done not in the Chamber, where on occasions it is very frustrating trying to be called to make one's points, but in the Committee rooms, where civil servants and Ministers—the people who hold the power—can be scrutinised. There is insufficient scrutiny of the Executive. Often on the Floor of the House, all we have are artificially long debates in which we get nowhere in terms of scrutinising the Executive. That could be changed, but unfortunately it is a matter which the Committee did not tackle.
We do not have sufficient opportunity to raise matters on behalf of our constituents. I should have liked to see the Committee suggest, for example, a period of 10 or 15 899 minutes at the beginning of each sitting when Members could have the Floor of the House for one minute to speak for constituents with pressing needs. Ten or 15 Members could be given that opportunity every day. It would be a service not only to those Members but to their constituents.
I welcome the idea that we should work towards a 10 o'clock vote. It is not shorter hours, but more sensible hours, that I want. I do not want to curtail the expression of opinion; I want to encourage more scrutiny. Why cannot we have more sensible working arrangements? Why do we start our business at 2.30 in the afternoon?
§ Mr. McFall
Business on the Floor of the House starts at 2.30.
The Committee's recommendation that there be one morning sitting a week—on Wednesdays—is timid. Why should not we sit every morning? Many, but not all, Members do not commit themselves to full-time membership. In saying so, I refer more to Conservative Members. If we had a commitment to full-time membership we could certainly have more orderly hours. We are told that this Parliament has more sitting days per year than any other Parliament in western Europe. That is true. But why do not we sit more than 161 days and spread the sittings out? That would be more sensible.
What are the drawbacks of our present system? Let me give two personal examples arising in the present Parliament. Last week, a very serious constituency problem—possible privatisation measures in relation to the Clyde submarine base—was brought to my attention. If the matter had been put to me next week or the week after that, I should have been unable to do anything about it, as the Executive cannot be scrutinised during the long parliamentary holidays. However, I was able last week to address the problem in the summer Adjournment debate. The Leader of the House passed my comments to the Ministry of Defence, and on Wednesday morning I am having a meeting with the Minister.
One week later, that effort would have been futile. I would not have had the opportunity to put my concerns to the Ministry. Once we came back in October, we could not have addressed that issue. It is a burning one presently, but in October when we return the decisions will have been taken.
Two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to have the Adjournment debate, but it took place at 7.45 am. The Minister replied at 8.10. I was up all night, I went to my flat at 9.15 and was back here to see constituents at 11 am. Back-Bench Members cannot give of their best in such circumstances, so what can Ministers do? We need to make far more radical changes to our procedures, but we have not taken the opportunity to do so.
I too have been taken in by the history and tradition of this place. I moved an amendment in the Select Committee on Sittings of the House to cease business in mid-July for our summer holidays. I felt that I was rather bold to move that amendment and I was happy when it was accepted. However, the next week the Chancellor gave his Budget speech and told us that the Treasury was changing the financial year so that the Budget would no longer be set in March. Experienced Members told me intially that I could not get away with the mid-July proposal and that, if I did, I would get away with murder. But a week later the 900 Chancellor stumped us all. That is another example of the way in which our respect for this place makes us myopic so that we cannot see the real issues. In this instance, I am as guilty of that as anyone else.
Why is the Leader of the House unable to give us more than two weeks' notice of forthcoming business? Last year, the secretary of a women's guild in my constituency wrote to me and gave me nine months' notice of a meeting she wanted me to address. I thanked her for her letter, but I had to say that I would write on the Friday before the meeting—in nine months' time—to say whether I could come. My action might seem sensible to my right hon. and hon. Friends, but does it make sense to the secretary of the women's guild in my constituency? I think not.
§ Mr. McFall
Yes I did, but it should be possible for me to organise my parliamentary diary more sensibly. It is not sensible to be told of parliamentary business with less than one week's notice, as at present.
I also moved an amendment in the Committee to introduce proxy voting, which summarised the difference between its experienced and inexperienced members, such as myself. We do not need to remind ourselves of the grotesque circumstances that prevailed in the 1970s when Labour Members were dragged from their sickbeds to vote here. At the time when the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill went through, George Cunningham, then a Member, recounted how three hon. Members had been dragged from their sickbeds to vote, any one of whom could have died in this Palace that night. The House insists that hon. Members should be here to vote, but that grotesque arrangement should stop.
My amendment was accepted by seven votes to six. Thew seven who voted in favour were, generally speaking, the least experienced Members of the Committee. The experienced Members warned us, "No, no, no. We cannot do anything about it. We cannot tell when a Member is sick." It was suggested that a doctor might give a sick line to someone who was not sick. It appears that we cannot apply the finest minds, which grapple with the problems of the nation, to defining when someone is sick. However, the inexperienced Members of that Committee voted in favour of my amendment. I remind the Leader of the House that we asked for a Speaker's Conference on that issue. We should have that conference as soon as possible.
The Committee also interviewed the previous Speaker about which proposed changes he would regard as beneficial. He said that, from his long experience, all reports recommending change had given more power to the Executive. I realise that that is a danger of this report. There is a democratic deficit in this country at present because the Executive power has grown and, to some extent, Parliament has become a spectator. I ask hon. Members, in voting and recommending the measures tonight, to bear in mind the words of the previous Speaker and ensure that the change gives not more power to the Executive but more power of security to Members.
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)
As a new boy coming to the House for the first time, I was struck by one rule at an early stage: the 10-minute rule imposed while I made my maiden speech. As a result. I did not have an 901 opportunity, which I intend to take now, to say a few words about my constituency—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, no."] I will only be short. I had an opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. Am I right in assuming that the hon. Gentleman has made his maiden speech?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
In that case, and given the hour, the hon. Gentleman should confine his speech to the subject in hand.
§ Mr. Heald
In general, the 10-minute rule is extremely good, despite the difficulty that I have experienced in that connection. If one cannot say something in 10 minutes, it is probably not worth saying.
It may have been right in former times for the House regularly to sit until the early hours, but it is now the centre of national debate in a rather different way. Given the measures taken in the past few years such as televising the House, and the development of public interest in our debates, with more people attending debates than previously, the House should carry out its business when the public are available to take an interest. Regularly to sit beyond 10 o'clock is no longer a sensible way to proceed when people at home wish to visit the House and hear our debates and to see them on television.
I welcome the recommendation that the sittings of the House should end at 10 o'clock if possible. It is not only a question of the reporting of the House and its activities, and the fact that people can see the House operate, but a question of the life style of Members of Parliament and the people who can be attracted to put forward their names to attend the House.
Members who live in the shires close to London, or in London, could then have a prefectly normal life style, going home to their families at night. It is ridiculous to stop that happening and continue with unnecessary late-night sittings. It puts off many people, especially women and those with young families who might otherwise be interested in putting their names forward. Such restrictions should not exist.
The House is not simply a focus of national debate, but a place where representative individuals can put forward their view on behalf of their constituents. I am particularly concerned about the Maxwell pensioners. and it seems ridiculous that the major debate on IM RO and the supervision of occupational pension funds should have taken place at 5 am, when that subject is at the centre of national interest and should have taken place during normal hours.
Similarly, my experience so far has been that constituency work can be undertaken on Fridays. For example, last Friday I visited the Howard Cottage Society in Letchworth, which is putting forward plans for 110 new dwellings in Letchworth. It has a range of schemes for the disabled. At my surgery on Saturday, I was able to say with experience to someone with a housing need that that was the institution to go to for help. Such basic constituency work must take place on Fridays, when such institutions are open. Factories, too, can only be visited on 902 Fridays. We would be wrong not to allow such opportunities regularly, thus allowing diaries to be filled in advance.
Schools are currently very interested to hear hon. Members talk about the workings of the House of Commons. That should be encouraged: we want school children to know about such matters. Schools are also interested in the environment, and want to know about environmental measures, the Rio conference and so on. We should protect Fridays for that purpose, too.
I accept that the voting system does not feature in the motion, but it strikes me that we spend hours voting on, for instance, ways and means motions, when there is no serious challenge to the measures in question. Nine, 10 or 11 hon. Members will be voting on one side and 250 on the other. Hours that could be used for debate are being wasted so that hon. Members can troop through the Lobbies. I hope that the House will either introduce electronic voting or, if that is not considered suitable, at least come up with a measure that addresses the problem. Perhaps the voting system suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) could be introduced. If debates are to end at 10 pm, every hour of precious debating time will need to be saved.
Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry that my original thought that I could mention the towns in my constituency rather more fully than I had done previously was not in order.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
My hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) and I wish to ask the Leader of the House a question. If there are to be Wednesday morning sittings and—heaven help us—Tuesday and Thurday morning sittings, what will happen to all our constituents who visit the House from other parts of the country?
Following the perceptive speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South, I have some questions to ask about Friday sittings. We have heard a lot of cant on the subject. Last Friday we had a debate about toxic waste, which related especially to Wales. What other opportunities will the Welsh have to discuss Pontypool and its problems in the House? On the Friday before that, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) raised the issue of special educational needs. When did the House of Commons ever have an opportunity to discuss that issue, except on Fridays?
Before that, there was a debate on action for the countryside. I agree with the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald): Rio is important. That was my only opportunity to raise, at some length, issues arising from it.
Before that, there was a debate on recycling. The House has never had an opportunity to discuss that properly. The Friday before that, there was a debate on the common agricultural policy. When have we ever had a relaxed debate on the common agricultural policy?
§ Ms. Armstrong
Is the time on Wednesday between 10 am and 2.30 pm significantly different from the time that we have on a Friday? It seems to me that there is only half an hour's difference.
§ Mr. Dalyell
My hon. Friend has asked the wrong friend. I was the late Dick Crossman's parliamentary private secretary when he tried to bring in morning sittings. The Leader of the House when I was first here was lain Macleod, a man whom I admired greatly and who was personally extremely kind to new Members, including Opposition Members. He warned that morning sittings would end in fiasco—and so they did.
To return to my hon. Friend's question: the parliamentary Labour party hold its weekly meetings on Wednesday morning; when is it to hold them if we sit then?
All these issues are of minor importance compared with a much more fundamental one about which I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South. It concerns the rights and effectiveness of the Opposition. We have an adversarial system in this House and in the British political system, so what weapon besides time do the Opposition have? As the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) pointed out, the use of time can be a threat, and it would be removed from us. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South about John Silkin—the pass was sold, although de mortuis nil nisi bonum. It was all a matter of convenience; and once we make the House more streamlined and less inconvenient, the powers of the Opposition will be diminished.
I should like to offer some concrete instances. Only once in Mrs. Thatcher's early days as Prime Minister was a Government decision changed. That was when some of us—very few of us—decided to talk all night about retrospective Iranian sanctions. The Leader of the House may remember the occasion. The change came about—the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) will remember this only too well, because the Whips were involved—because of effective opposition.
After the event that I have just described, there was a truncated debate in the House, when the usual function of the Chamber was distorted and the rules were broken. The date was 3 April 1982; the occasion, the Falklands debate. Dissent was ruled out: there was no time for it. As George Thomas states in his memoirs, he decided that, in the short time available, the Prime Minister had to be supported. Had there been a six-hour debate, other voices would have been heard. Had they been heard, the battle fleet might not have gone south with the imprimatur of Parliament and some of the ridiculous statements made from the Labour Front Bench by Michael Foot and John Silkin would at least have been challenged. Things would have turned out very differently.
So much is arguable; what is not arguable is what happened in the 1960s. I am one of the dwindling band of Members who remember—my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) will contradict me if he thinks that I am terribly wrong—our late colleagues Jack Mendelson, Michael Foot and a number of others below the Gangway, arguing the case day after day against committing British troops to Vietnam. Because of the set-up in the House which allows the dissenters to have their say, this country, rightly or wrongly—rightly as some of us passionately believe—was kept out of the Vietnam war.
904 If there had been box-like 10-minute speeches of the type to which my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) referred, what would have happened over Suez? How could there have been opposition, rightly or wrongly, with its effect on political history if Members had been straitjacketed into speeches which no one interrupted? Such speeches are neat and tidy contributions which have little effect on the outside world. The House should not be unduly tidied up, because when we are tidied up we become much less effective. There is a dilemma between so-called efficiency and effectiveness. Warts and all, I would rather be effective.
§ Mr. Newton
The truest comment in this fascinating debate was made by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who has apologised for not being able to stay until the end of the debate. He said that in this area it was clearly impossible to satisfy everybody's interests. I think that I have quoted him correctly. That has been clearly borne out in the debate. As I said in opening the debate, I was endeavouring to accord with what I took to be the spirit of the House by confining my speech to the magic 20 minutes recommended in the Jopling report. However, I found the widespread and entirely legitimate demand for interventions incompatible with limiting myself to 20 minutes. That is an interesting illustration of the sort of balance that we must strike in these matters.
Manifestly, whatever general importance the House attaches to short Front-Bench speeches in the interests of wider opportunities for Back Benchers, Members value the opportunity to get directly at a Minister by way of an intervention rather than in a later speech. Therefore, I would have upset the House more if I had attempted to stick to 20 minutes than I did by going beyond that time and seeking to answer some of the interventions. That would be accepted by anyone who has been present throughout the debate.
It has been an interesting debate, from which it is singularly difficult to draw clear and firm conclusions. Very strong cross-currents have emerged in all parts of the House—more than I expected when it was decided to have the debate. At times, those cross-currents almost became altercations. I shall have an abiding memory of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) shouting to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) that he should remember that some of us were capable of doing arithmetic. That was because the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East quoted statistics which included two summer recesses. The hon. Member for Perry Barr thought that that was an overstatement of the extent to which Parliament does not sit. Such differences have emerged on both sides of the debate.
The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) spoke from the Dispatch Box in the place customarily occupied by the spokesman for the official Opposition. The hon. Gentleman has apologised for not being here for the winding-up speeches. He said that was speaking pretty much in a personal capacity. I am glad to see the two Opposition Whips nodding. The hon. Gentleman made it fairly clear that there are what I have delicately called cross-currents among those on the Opposition Front 905 Bench as well as among those on the Benches behind them. That is one of the factors that both sides of the House will need to note and bear in mind.
On the Opposition Benches, the hon. Members for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) broadly supported the proposals, although neither of them said a great deal about the timetabling provisions. They were focusing more on other aspects of the proposals.
I am afraid that I missed the speech of the hon. Member for Perry Barr, but I am told that it was supportive of the report. I am not sure that he referred to the famous Rooker-Wise amendment to a Finance Bill in the late 1970s. I do not think that I was an Opposition Whip then. I think that I was simply a Back-Bench Member. As far as I could discern from what I was told about the hon. Gentleman's speech, he was suggesting that the amendment was mine and that he had simply hijacked it. I am not sure whether I regard that as supportive in all the circumstances, but it was an interesting time.
There was considerable support, going beyond what he described as the "timid" proposals in the report, from the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), who was a member of the Committee.
Against that were some very strong arguments that cannot be dismissed—I entirely accept that—from the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East, who was pretty militantly opposed to the report, and the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who made his reasons clear. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who spoke with such force a few moments ago, also strongly opposed it. I am not in a position to answer his question about what would happen to people seeking to visit the House of Commons if morning sittings were to take place on Wednesdays. Ultimately, that will be a matter for the House, but if our existing rules about the line of route were maintained, Wednesday mornings would be more limited, if not disappear altogether, as an opportunity for visiting the House. That would have to be considered by others.
I also cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's question about where the Labour party's weekly meetings would take place. I am quite happy to leave that to his right hon. and hon. friends. However, and more seriously, the hon. Gentleman raised queries, which were answered by sedentary interventions, about the opportunities to debate the important subjects which he referred to as having been debated on recent Fridays. The answer is that the report envisages that the Wednesday morning sitting should be used for precisely that purpose. It may be that the opportunities for discussing these issues will be as great or even greater.
§ Mr. Cryer
The Leader of the House will bear it in mind that the difference between Friday and Wednesday is that there are no Committees sitting on a Friday, so people are free to concentrate on the Chamber, whereas on Wednesdays there are competing responsibilities of merits Committees and, under the Committee's proposals, more people will be involved in those Committees. Inevitably, more will be faced with a choice between attending the Committee and attending the Chamber and that is surely wrong.
§ Mr. Newton
I understand that point. I was trying only to comment on the suggestion by the hon. Member for Linlithgow that opportunities for debate on such subjects as come up on Fridays would disappear. I agree that Wednesday morning sittings raise questions of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, but they are not entirely unique and new. Similar problems already arise from Standing Committees and Select Committees sitting in the afternoon. They should not be seen as insuperable, although I accept that that is one of the points that need to be considered in deciding what the way forward might be.
Matching the differences of opinion and concerns expressed on the Opposition Benches were comparable differences and concerns expressed by my hon. Friends. There was, first, the understandably strong support expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), which was endorsed very much by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), who rightly reminded us of his long experience as Chairman of the Procedure Committee and of the extent to which earlier work of that Committee underlay the work of the Jopling Committee. There was strong support, too, from my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), though he expressed some reservations. In some respects they were perhaps surprising in view of his early-day motion. There was support, too, from my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald).
Against that support, concern was expressed—I recognise that the arguments advanced cannot be dismissed—by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), by my hon. Friend the Member and, for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies). who said that he would not feel able to support some of the proposals should they come to that stage. There was also my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis)—
§ Mr. Grocott
The Leader of the House made an ominous remark when he said. "should they come to that stage." He was talking about some of the proposals. Perhaps he will answer a question that has been raised many times during the debate, bearing in mind the fact that this is the second debate that we have had on these matters. When will specific motions be brought before us so that the House, which is admittedly divided on many of the issues which have been raised, can reach a decision on important matters? Can the right hon. Gentleman give us a date and a time when he plans that to happen?
§ Mr. Newton
I cannot go beyond what I said in my opening speech, which was that I would be setting out in reasonable detail the Government's thoughts on the report. I said that I would, as I think I can claim faithfully to have done, pay careful attention to the views expressed during the debate with a view—I shall repeat what I said because I think that it is important and I suspect that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), the Opposition Chief Whip, will agree—to identifying a basis for agreement that can thereafter be discussed through the usual channels, with the aim of being in a position to bring forward substantive motions at an early stage after the House resumes in the autumn. I think that that is reasonably clear and I think that it is also a reasonable way in which to proceed.
907 In the concluding minutes of the debate, there are two fairly broad conclusions that I would draw. First—I take some comfort from this in view of the reservations expressed in some quarters—it has been right to have a wide-ranging general debate in the new Parliament before attempting to come to detailed decisions and to bring forward detailed motions. The quality and range of the debate have demonstrated the importance of proceeding in that manner.
Secondly, there have been differences of opinion—not least on the Opposition Benches—about the consequences of some aspects of the report if they were implemented. For example, the hon. Member for Perry Barr strongly took the view that they would assist the Opposition in scrutinising legislation more effectively, doing their job better and putting more pressure on the Government. There is the equally strongly held view of the hon. Member for Bradford, South and a number of other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Linlithgow, that they would gravely weaken the capacity of the Opposition to do the job that they wish to pursue. That is perhaps an illustration of the difficulty of achieving the consensus that would be required to carry matters forward in the way that we would all wish in a general sense.
The exact effect of what is eventually proposed will depend very much on detail, which can be achieved only by talking matters through in detail and not in a general debate of this sort. I would not wish to disguise from the House my own prejudice, which corresponds with some earlier parts of my experience. It picks some of the remarks that have been made about the absurdity of some aspects of that which our present procedure imposes upon us. As a Government Whip in the early 1980s, I have a clear recollection of going into Committee with the sole aim of clocking up enough hours to justify a guillotine. I do not think that many people would regard that as a sensible way of approaching the consideration of Bills in Committee.
§ Mr. McFall
Will the right hon. Gentleman give a commitment to convene a Speaker's Conference on the proxy voting issue?
§ Mr. Newton
You are sitting in the Chair, Madam Speaker, and I think that I would be right in saying that a Speaker's Conference is a matter for you rather than for me. I have no doubt that you have studied the recommendations in the report and heard—or will be made aware of—the comments of the hon. Gentleman and a number of others during the debate.
Among all the difficulties that I face in replying to the debate is the fact that alongside the differences of opinion about the proposals in the report, there has been a wide range of proposals that are not in the report and, in some cases, have been suggested as substitutes for it. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, who has now departed—
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.