§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. David Davis.]
§ [Proposed subject for debate: Report from the Select Committee on Sittings of the House (HC20].
§ 7 pm
§ Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)
The topic for the debate tonight is the report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask your advice on how wide the debate can go? An Adjournment Debate allows fairly wide discussion. I wonder whether the debate is limited simply to the points in the report.
§ Mr. Speaker
An Adjournment debate is wide, but it is, of course, limited to the report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House.
§ Mr. Jopling
The Select Committee was set up last July and the report was laid before the House a week last Friday. I begin by expressing my gratitude to the members of the Committee, who were extremely hard-working and co-operative. We had 17 meetings in the short time that the Committee was in existence. We have several extremely busy people on the Committee, including the chairman of the 1922 Committee, the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party and the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure. We also had two extremely helpful ladies who told us about the problems of lady members. We received a great deal of evidence, for which we are grateful. We were supported by an excellent team of Clerks, led by Mr. Sweetman.
One of the first matters which the Committee had very much in mind was that, when considering altering parliamentary procedure, it is important to seek to do it on the basis of consensus. Many hon. Members will recall that the lack of consensus was probably the reason why the Crossman experiment failed so dismally—I remember it well from when I first entered the House. So I am pleased to report that we have an agreed report. Several votes were taken in coming to that conclusion, but the House will notice from the report that in not one of those votes was the Committee split entirely along party lines. So there was a great deal of agreement, and at the end the report was unanimous.
The first step that we took was to issue a questionnaire to Members. We had a large response—probably the largest of all time. Strong feelings were expressed. It reflected the basic background to the work of the House, which we included in our report. It is that the House of Commons sits for more days and more hours than any other legislative body in any of the large democracies.
In the strongest expression of view, 83 per cent. of those who responded to the questionnaire said that they wanted fewer late night sittings. We all hear continual complaints about the fact that Parliament sometimes sits all night. People say, "How can you reach sensible decisions at 4 am?" Therefore, the Committee's central conclusion is that the main business should end in future at 10 pm. We would like the Government to declare their intention to do that at the start of each Session. Under our proposals, some business could continue after 10 pm, but we hope 75 that that will be rare and that normally the only business after 10 pm would be Divisions arising from the business up until 10 pm, and the half-hour Adjournment.
Most Members were happy with the existing balance between the time allocated to the Government, the Opposition and private Members. I hope that the report reflects that continuing balance. If the recommendations of the report are implemented, as I hope, there might be one exception to that balance: the report is very much a charter for the Back Bencher. We have proposed that we should extract various pieces of private Members' business —namely, the Consolidated Fund Bill, private Members' motions, the three-hour recess debates and the final day recess Adjournment debates. Some of that business goes on before 10 pm and some goes on after 10 pm. Some of it goes on all night. We believe that it should be extracted and put on during prime time on Wednesday mornings in a sitting beginning at 10 'am and ending at 2.30 pm, when Question Time would start in the normal way.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
Has the Committee considered the implications of the sittings of the new European Committees, which always sit on Wednesday mornings and already face competition from other events?
§ Mr. Jopling
That is a good argument for never having morning sittings, and we considered it. But we felt that Wednesday morning might be an appropriate time for private Members' business, because there would be no need for heavy ministerial presence or heavy whipping, and at the same time and there would he the minimum disruption to the line of route.
§ Mr. Jopling
No. The Committee has recommended that speeches by those introducing debates should be no longer than 20 minutes, and I do not intend to get caught on that one.
The Committee examined the possibility of moving the whole parliamentary day forward to start at 11.30 am. We decided against it, for very much the reasons that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) just mentioned. It would be a mistake to start at 11.30 am, with questions from 11.30 am to 12.30 pm, statements from 12.30 to 1 pm or 1.30 pm, at a time, particularly on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, when up to 200 Members may be engaged upstairs in the Standing and Select Committees.
§ Mr. Jopling
No, I will not give way. I may give way a little later, but I must get on now.
It was the view of the Committee that that great opportunity in prime time for private Members to raise matters that concern them, together with the 24 hours under the new procedure which we believe will be necessary in future for private Bills, almost exactly matches the present period provided in the once-a-week four-and-a-half-hour sessions.
The Committee's proposals largely maintain the remaining balance between Government and Opposition time in the business of the House. Of course, there will be 76 a considerable loss of time if we do not sit after 10 pm. Therefore, the Committee suggested that, to compensate in part, we should shorten some of the set-piece debates. It recommended that the Queen's Speech debate should be shortened by one day, the Budget debate by one day, the debates on the armed services by one day, other Government debates by two days and the total of Opposition days by another two days. That would reduce those set-piece debates by seven days.
Therefore, paragraph 61 states that 71 hours of business would be lost if the House did not sit after 10 o'clock. The Committee has suggested a number of ways in which that can be made up, principally by more widespread timetabling of Bills after Second Reading. I hope that hon. Members will distinguish between timetabling and guillotining, which is a different matter, is by order of the Government, and would remain.
We propose that timetabling should either be arranged by a new Committee—set to take care of it—or that each Standing Committee could allot time for all stages of the Bill. Ultimately, the progress of Bills would remain in the hands of the Government.
I must draw hon. Members' attention to the part of our report where we state that we would deplore it if the Government of the day used the device of timetabling to put more Bills into the system.
§ Mr. Clelland
I should like the right hon. Member to expand on two matters. First, I believe that he is saying that one of the reasons for not having an 11.30 am start would be the complication of having Question Time when many hon. Members are in Committee. Surely that could take place at the normal time of 2.30 pm, even if the main business in the House started at 11.30am. Has the Committee considered that? Secondly, in an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said that morning sittings would clash with Committees, but they meet in the afternoons at 4 o'clock now, and that does not seem to prevent us from carrying on with business.
§ Mr. Jopling
Yes, but in general afternoon Committees meet when essential business on the Floor of the House —Question Time and statements—is over. We considered the hon. Member's other proposition, but we arrived at this consensus and I hope that the House will approve it.
Other time-saving measures would be: first, to refer affirmative statutory instruments upstairs automatically; and secondly, to limit statutory instruments and European documents to one and half hours, regardless of the time at which they begin. Thirdly, we suggest wider discretion for the Speaker to apply the ten-minute rule Bill. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, the 10-minutes rule."] I am sorry, I meant the 10-minutes rule on speeches.
Finally, Ministers should be encouraged to make shorter speeches, and we recommend the abolition of the second Adjournment debate.
§ Mr. Jopling
I must get on. The hon. Gentleman kindly gave evidence to the Committee.
The Committee was conscious of Members' responsibilities to their families. During our deliberations, we heard a good deal about the point of view of women, and we thought a great deal about it. The Committee was 77 anxious to implant more certainty into the parliamentary year. For that reason, we decided that we would recommend that, early in the Session, 10 Fridays should be designated when the House would not sit, so that Members could make firm appointments in their diaries to visit schools or other institutions which do not function on Saturdays, and would know that they were not likely to have to cancel such appointments, as such cancellations are often not understood.
We also recommend that, on the Thursday preceding Fridays when we do not sit, business should end at 7 o'clock. I believe that that would be for the convenience of the House. I know that many hon. Members cannot get home if they do not get away by 7 o'clock on Thursday or after a vote at 10 o'clock. If they have to go home the following day, the morning is practically over before they get back to their constituencies. I believe that that change would be very much in Members' interests.
We recommend other changes which would make the parliamentary timetable more certain. The Leader of the House should announce at the start of the Session firm dates for the Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun recesses. We believe that a date should be set for rising in the summer, around mid-July. If necessary, we could return during September and October to complete business lost in July. The Leader of the House should start an experiment to announce two weeks business in advance on Thursdays to give us better warning of what is to happen.
§ Ms. Harriet Harman (Peckham)
I welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned family responsibilities, because that is one reason why there are so few women in the House. Does he recognise that, while the report is a step in the right direction, if we are to make the House more representative of women, we must have more radical reform?
§ Mr. Jopling
The Committee was somewhat disappointed that, although around 69 per cent. of Members responded to our questionnaire, unfortunately only 59 per cent. of the ladies responded, which we found rather strange.
The Committee has tried hard not to erect buffers in parliamentary procedures, such as an absolute rule that business would end at 10 o'clock or at any other time, or a firm decision to rise on a specific date in July, because we were aware that, if one puts up a buffer in terms of time, one provides a clear challenge for the Opposition of the day to drive the Government into those buffers.
To sum up, the Committee has devised rules to allow the House to proceed with its business as effectively as it does now, recognising the rights of both Government and Opposition, within a modern, sensible time scale. That is the core of our report, which follows fairly closely the advice that we were given helpfully by the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, to whom we are grateful. It follows closely on what they advised us individually.
I hope that the report will be acceptable now and after the election, when I hope it will be discussed again quickly, and I commend it to the House.
§ Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East)
I welcome the report as a member of the Select Committee. The proposals are extremely modest. I am not a revolutionary. We must be 78 careful when we consider the procedures of the House and consider taking one brick out. If we are not careful, without that brick we may bring the place down.
§ Mr. Orme
If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I shall do just that.
The report and hon. Members' experience show that, with each new Parliament, each new group of Members is dissatisfied with the procedures of the House or how it is run.
These proposals are modest, and include two or three central points. One is that Members do not see any value in sitting through the night, as we have often done night after night. Our electorate think that we are made to do it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] It does not serve any political purpose at the end of the Session. Moreover, as we know, the Government get their business through in any case. We considered that, and have recommended that we should finish at 10 pm on most evenings. That should be the norm, although sometimes it will have to be extended. That is one of the central recommendations of the report.
Linked with that is the proposal that we should know the length of a Session and the dates of recesses. We should have advance information. We should finish in mid-July. That is of particular importance to Members with young families. That is another central recommendation.
In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the recommendation of an experiment with morning sittings on Wednesday is worthy, and we should take it into account. We considered bringing the whole parliamentary day forward to start at 11.30 am, but there was not a consensus within the Committee for it. I assure her that some of us argued for such a proposal.
We concluded that, where possible, on Thursdays we should finish at 7 or 7.30 pm. It is proposed that that should happen on 10 Thursdays throughout the year, and that on the following Friday there should be no business. The media do not seem to realise that the work of a Member of Parliament is changing.
§ Mr. Orme
I agree with my hon. Friend: the media are not here.
Constituency pressures are increasing rather than decreasing. Consequently, members are expected to deal with an increasing number of constituency cases. It is not always possible to do so at the weekend, as schools, businesses, factories, shops and so on are not always open. It is important to have Friday for that. We are not saying that Members should have more time off; we are saying that Members should deploy their time more intelligently. Frankly, our time is not employed intelligently now.
The timetabling of Bills is a controversial issue. We need a more intelligent approach to Standing Committees on Bills. Over the years, I have spent time battling my way through those Committees, and we need to change our approach. Sometimes we spend hundreds of hours in Committee, and to what useful purpose? At the end of the day, the Government of the day get their legislation through, however much it is opposed. The Opposition 79 have a right to oppose it as strongly as possible. That happens now. We need to give serious consideration to Standing Committees.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
Of course there is an abuse of the Standing Committee system. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that occasionally, in particular when outside bodies give us expert opinions, a Government can be highly embarrassed, or potentially embarrassed, in Committee? Does he further agree that wholesale timetabling, as distinct from selective time-tabling, would reduce that? As the report states that timetabling will tilt the balance to the advantage of the Government, does my hon. Friend think that Back-Bench Members or the public would think that that would keep powers in this House rather than in Whitehall?
§ Mr. Orme
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and we discussed the matter in detail in the Committee. There is no easy answer. Therefore, we have suggested that timetabling might be considered by the Standing Committee itself: if it is prepared to timetable the Bill, it could do so. I should like Select Committees to interview witnesses before such debates. The difficulty about that suggestion is that the Government of the day, irrespective of who they are, are opposed to it. There is a conflict between Back-Bench Members who, rightly, want these matters discussed, and the Government, who say, "No, no. We are not having that. We want to get the business through."
§ Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside)
Further to that point, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is of no advantage to the Opposition or to pressure groups dealing with them to debate anything until 4 am or 5 am? Perhaps I am slightly influenced by the fact that I have had two doses of that on two major Bills this Session. My hon. Friend has much more experience than me, so he has had to put up with this for a great deal longer. Is it not now time that we say to new Members before they become accustomed to the place that they show their radicalism and change our procedures from those of the 19th century to those of the 21st century?
§ Mr. Orme
I welcome my hon. Friend's intervention. I hope that I am not taking a no-change attitude on account of my experience. Indeed, I want to see change, and I believe that the pressure for change will be greater than ever in the next Parliament.
On that basis, I recommend the report to the House. It is possible to implement its recommendations before the general election, but I hope that after the election these modest proposals will be put into effect. Let us see how Parliament can carry these proposals forward next Session.
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) on the way in which he chaired the Select Committee and on the report that he has produced for the consideration of the House.
First, let me answer the question raised by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) about lady Members. We spent a lot of time in Committee considering 80 how to address the need to encourage more ladies to become Members of the House. One of the points that was made very definitely to us was that morning sittings would not encourage young mothers into the House. They are much more able to have time with their children in the morning than in the evening when their children are in bed. We considered that the present hours of the House might well be more helpful to young mothers than a major change.
Secondly, as is obvious from some voices in this House, a small number of Members are well able to frustrate the working of the House, without any reform. Too often a few voices have stopped reform when a large majority of Members, not attending this debate, are in favour of the report and would like to see its recommendations implemented.
Before I consider the report, I wish to deal with two matters to which it does not refer. By its terms of reference, the Committee was precluded from examining the size of the House of Commons. We are the largest parliamentary assembly or congress in the free world. I accept that Germany has had to bring together in the Bundestag members from east and west, but it will reduce that number by the emergency resolution on the amalgamation.
There is no doubt that the House sits more days and longer hours than any other Parliament. I wonder whether it would not be more convenient for the country and the House if, after the next election, the House were made up not of 651 hon. Members but of only 450.
§ Sir Peter Emery
Because many of the problems that arise would come to nothing if there were fewer hon. Members. It may be difficult to get chickens to vote for chicken pie, but if Parliament decided to order the Boundary Commission to achieve that in 10 years' time, through wastage, positive thinking could bring that about.
§ Mr. Beaumont-Dark
My hon. Friend suggests 200 fewer hon. Members, but how many people know who their MEP is? I do not, and, do not need to. Constituents want their individual problems to be dealt with and that is an important job of an hon. Member. If there are fewer hon. Members, those individual problems will be dealt with less well.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I am not surprised that my hon. Friend does not know who his MEP is, but that is another matter. My hon. Friend has not taken into consideration the fact that, when the House was made up of 450 hon. Members, hon. Members were frequently able to deal with the constituency size that resulted. Bill van Straubenzee was a good example of such an hon. Member.
§ Sir Peter Emery
The Select Committee on the Sittings of the House did not give enough thought to the fact that the work load of a Member of Parliament has vastly altered. The amount of constituency correspondence and the demands on the Member to be in the constituency has altered so much since I first came to the House in 1959. I was then the Member for Reading and worked in Parliament. Today, an hon. Member is meant to be the Member of Parliament in the constituency.
81 The demands of the work load of the House have changed considerably, and our sitting hours make it very difficult for an hon. Member representing a constituency a long way from Westminster to spend time in his constituency on a Friday. That is why the Committee recommended that the House should not sit on at least 10 Fridays. We shall have to consider the sitting hours of the House again before long when the House reassembles after the election.
The report contains 13 recommendations, and the majority of them have been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. Of the 13 recommendations, seven were recommendations made to the House by the Select Committee on Procedure over the past three years. They include the recommendations on the allocation of time, affirmative resolutions for Standing Committees, those on statutory instruments and European documents, shorter speeches from the Front Benches—something that the House might accept—length of the parliamentary calendar, greater latitude for Mr. Speaker to use the 10-minute limit, and second Adjournments.
As an aside to the Lord President, I suggest that the reports of the Procedure Committee should be debated far more quickly than they have been in the past. I give my right hon. Friend the greatest praise because he has done more to implement the reports of that Committee than any other Leader of the House for a long time. My right hon. Friend deserves credit for that.
Is the House willing to consider some reform? To suggest that the reforms proposed by the Committee are a major revolution is nonsense. They are just a small move forward. One thing that I have learnt as Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure—Chairman for longer than any other hon. Member since the great war—is that it takes considerable time to change our procedures. We move slowly. Such matters need to be considered and thought out with great care, but most of the Committee's recommendations have been around for a long time.
I believe that it is right and proper to move in that direction, and I believe that the opportunity to do so will arise after the next general election. I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House to give a commitment to reconsider this matter immediately the House returns after the election. I also ask the Leader of the House to ensure that the Clerk and the Clerks' Department have ready for us all the alterations in the Standing Orders that would be necessary for us to proceed. If my right hon. Friend, whatever position he may subsequently hold, urges that this matter be dealt with swiftly after the election, he should know that the members of the Procedure Committee will give every support to try to ensure that the changes are introduced.
§ Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)
The House of Commons sits for more days in the year and for more hours in the day than any other legislature in the western world. The American Senate and the Canadian House of Commons sit for half as long, while the Parliaments of France, Germany and Italy sit for one third as long as we do.
One matter not addressed in what I consider to be a timid and disappointing report is why we sit for so many hours. It has been held that we scrutinise more detailed 82 legislation than any other legislature. The report does not consider what increase or diminution in hours is likely in future because of, for example, the transfer of legislative powers to the European Council. I assume that that transfer of powers must be accompanied by a movement of powers of scrutiny to the European Parliament. Those issues were not put properly in context.
The report contains a number of worthwhile proposals. I agree with the timetabling of Government Bills, which would put an end to the absolutely fruitless guillotine debates. The guillotine was used 22 times between 1945 and 1977. In the 11-year reign of the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) it was used 66 times and she had the nerve to lecture us not so long ago about the supremacy of Parliament. We did not see much of that when her boot was on Parliament's neck. I also agree with the earlier announcement of recesses and the proposal to rise in mid-July. I believe that we should finish even earlier and come back earlier in the autumn.
The 10 sitting-free Fridays are tokenism. How many hon. Members attend the House for more than a handful of Fridays anyway? The Friday concession is a diversion from the real issue of whether Parliament should work normal hours.
Parliament was much more robust about such matters 25 years ago. The Procedure Committee of 1966 considered different ways in which the hours of the House could be reduced. In the end, the Committee settled for moving some business to two mornings a week. The Leader of the House, Mr. Richard Crossman, set out a number of proposals for change, including trial morning sittings. I must say that Richard Crossman was a real Leader of the House, unlike some of the recent holders of that title who have seemed to behave like major-domos of the Cabinet. The result was that the House decided to meet on Monday and Wednesday mornings from 10 am to 12.30 pm.
Mr. Crossman intelligently observed that opposition to the proposals came from hon. Members who saw the experiment asthe thin end of the wedge which, if driven home …. might exclude the part-time MP from the House altogether.There are probably more part-time MPs now than there were then but the matter is delicately skirted in the report. On 14 December 1966, Crossman said:Up till now, if we are frank, our time-table has been designed to suit the convenience of those part-timers who earn their living outside in the mornings and the whole-timers, often without these economic advantages, have had to lump it ….is it not time we gave some consideration to the needs of those who keep the House of Commons going during the morning hours when the part-timers are earning their living?" —[Official Report, 14 December 1966; Vol. 738, c. 492–93.]As the House knows, Crossman's experiment failed because filibustering by Conservative Members kept the House up late at night, as it had been before. Despite the morning sittings, the extent of late night sittings increased. As Crossman pointed out, the Government gained from the experiment. In 46 short morning sittings, they secured 20 Second Readings, 12 Committee stages, 18 Report stages and Third Readings, 24 orders and four considerations of Lords amendments.
It is always alleged that there was not enough business for the Crossman morning sessions, but that simply is not true. They were destroyed by Conservative Members who wanted to earn their livings outside the House in the mornings.
§ Mr. Garrett
No. I have sworn to Mr. Speaker that I shall speak for only 10 minutes.
The same matter was raised by the so-called "epoch-making" Procedure Committee of 1977–78. In that Committee, which introduced the present arrangements on Select Committees and on which the present Home Secretary, the present Chancellor and Mr. Enoch Powell served, I moved an amendment to that epoch-making report. I shall quote it because it is always worth recycling good material:We consider that the work of an assiduous Member of Parliament has increased so greatly that it should now be seen as a full-time job and that the arrangement of Parliamentary sittings to enable members to pursue outside employment on the excuse that they need to 'keep in touch' with the everyday world of the Courts and the City is contradictory to our idea of a modern and effective Parliamentary system … The present hours of the House are also a deterrent to legislative efficiency, and are probably harmful to health and disruptive of family life. We therefore propose that the general rule should be that the House should meet in the mornings, afternoons and evenings up to 7.30 pm and not at night. We are convinced that the present pattern of sittings is quite unnecessary, that it is left over from a more leisurely age when Parliament was dominated by the tradition of the gentleman amateur.The vote on that amendment was a tie, with Labour Members voting for it and Conservative and Liberal Members voting against it. The Labour Chairman—a lawyer—used his casting vote to defeat it.
We shall never be an effective legislature while so many hon. Members have outside careers. I leave aside the conflict of interests that can arise, particularly given the growth of parliamentary lobbyists and public relations consultants. Until we have full-time Members of Parliament, we shall never have adequate accommodation, equipment and facilities.
I agree with my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House that there should be morning sittings from 10.30 am, that 7 pm should be the end of the main business on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and that we should not sit on Fridays. I expect a Labour Government to offer the House a vote on those matters. Actually, a vote is not necessary, because Crossman left behind a Standing Order that could still be activated to convene the House at 10 am.
A further matter is the gruesome business of dying or very ill Members being inspected by Whips for signs of life —[Laughter.] It is true. They are brought into the House by ambulance and inspected by Whips to see whether they show any signs of life before they can be counted as able to vote. The Procedure Committee recommended 32 years ago that that practice should end.
I should like hon. Members to read—I do not have time to read it now—a letter from the Leader of the House to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, in appendix 11, page 169 of the Select Committee's report. It is entitled "Proxy voting for seriously ill Members". They will see that it is a masterpiece of double-talk. I cannot conceive why the Leader of the House could not agree to proxy voting for terminally or seriously ill Members. To require them to be brought in by ambulance and have their pulses felt by Whips to see whether they can vote is simply grotesque. I do not know how the Leader of the House could write such a letter.
84 All that bears out the conclusion to which I have come in the past couple of years—many of the powers of the Leader of the House over our domestic arrangements should be transferred to the Speaker. We are too much under the Government's thumb, and this is another example of it.
§ Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)
Anyone who was in the House at the time of the Crossman experiment—many such hon. Members are here this evening—will agree that the description of it by the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) was a travesty of the truth. The Crossman morning sittings were an utter disaster from start to finish. Moreover, the proof of the pudding was in the eating—subsequent Labour Governments never attempted to revive them, because they knew that they were a total disaster. The lesson to be learned from that is not that morning sittings are necessarily disastrous but that, when procedural reforms are rammed through against the wishes of a large minority in the House, they simply will not work.
As someone who did not sit on the Committee, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) because, when I read the list of Committee members, I thought that it was a miracle that he got them to agree unanimously to the report. Naturally, there were some Divisions in the middle of the Committee's proceedings, but the report's unanimous acceptance is an astonishing achievement.
My message tonight is that the House would be mad if it did not just say yes to the report, even it it thinks that it is a transitory measure. One day a Government may wish to make a more radical reforms. That will be fair enough, but the present reform is generally agreed by a large majority—certainly by a unanimous report of a Select Committee and, I suspect, by many hon. Members, including those who are not here this evening. Whoever is in power after the next general election should try the reform as an experiment, see what happens and then review the matter after a decent period, because the report is full of common sense.
We are in danger of talking about our own convenience in this debate. Surely the whole point is that we must combine our convenience with providing effective scrutiny over the Government. Our opinions are likely to change depending on whether we are in government or in opposition. I have known hon. Members' opinions to change radically when they have changed sides of the Chamber. One wants to be as objective as one can about how one would react on the other side of the House. I consider that the report is a good idea. In recent years, late night sittings, to which most hon. Members are opposed, are much less frequent. We have far fewer all-night sittings, which is a result of the House regulating itself, as it often does with great success.
When trying to reform the sittings of the House, there is a direct conflict of interest between two groups of hon. Members: those who live near to London and want to get home in the evenings and those who come from miles away and want to get home to the north or the south-west, having been stuck here all week. The latter are less interested in whether the House rises early. A compromise that would suit both parties now, even it it does not last, would too good to be true. Already, as a result of the 85 conflict between the two shades of Members, we have seen that in recent years parliamentary business is now far more concentrated on Tuesdays and Wednesdays than it was when I first came into the House. People complain about Divisions on Mondays and Thursdays now, whereas they were commonplace in the past. Indeed, we sometimes had Divisions on Fridays—
§ Mr. Channon
As my hon. Friend says, we occasionally have them now, but people mind. Nowadays, most hon. Members expect business to be concentrated into a long Tuesday, and a long Wednesday, if necessary. The practice in the House has changed considerably.
The most crucial proposal of all is the timetabling of all Bills. That is a good proposal, and I would think so even if I were in opposition. I can think of almost no occasion on which the Opposition have been able to stop a Bill by talking and talking. Perhaps the only exception was the Bill to reform the House of Lords, when the Labour Government of the day could not obtain a guillotine. I can think of no other example when a Bill was stopped by people talking, either in the Chamber or in Committee, for so long that the Government gave up. The proposal would meet the balance of advantages much better.
Governments are also against that proposal. They have been against the timetabling of all Bills, often because they think that they can get the legislation through the House quicker than a timetable would allow. In the not too distant past, the Select Committee on Procedure suggested the timetabling of Bills, but its proposal was turned down by large numbers of hon. Members. Some were Government Members, and I cannot imagine why they had such a sudden interest in the matter that evening.
Such a proposal would mean that the Opposition would have to change their tactics, but they have already. They would have to concentrate on the earlier half of the day—Question Time and Prime Minister's questions—which is exactly what happens at present. That practice has been very much encouraged by television.
It is clearly stated in the report that most Members think that the present length and balance of recesses is about right. However, I note that the Committee makes the happy suggestion that we should rise two weeks earlier in July. It also implies—I thought that my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said something different today—that it would be impossible to come back earlier in the autumn, so where would the two weeks be made up? Would they simply disappear? I should like to have some information on that important issue.
I agree with the suggestion of rising earlier in July. I think that it is intolerable for hon. Members, particularly Scottish Members, should be forced to take the recess so late that they have no time at all with their children during the school holidays.
§ Mr. Jopling
If my right hon. Friend would be kind enough to look at paragraph 85 of the report, he will see that the matter is mentioned here.
§ Mr. Channon
It states that it is for the House to decide, but it continues with other arguments as to why that would be pretty well impossible. I shall not weary the House by 86 reading the report, but it is an important issue that should be cleared up. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale is right.
We all have different opinions, but the point that I feel most strongly about is that it is ridiculous that, in a modern Chamber, we do not know on a Wednesday afternoon what we shall be debating the following Tuesday. How can that be sensible? I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to let us have more notice of the business of the House. I am sure that he will try to do so—he may have already said that he will. It is terrible that Members do not know whether they have to be here or whether they can fulfil a constituency engagement or meet some other appointment.
§ Mr. Channon
That may be true, but it only happens every four or five years. I am talking about something that happens every week. The system works well in another place. However, I urge my right hon. Friend not only to allow us more notice of recesses—which would be good, and to our convenience—but, for the convenience of the House, to give notice of what the business may be two or three weeks in advance. Of course, in an emergency the business would have to be changed, but I suspect that that would happen infrequently.
As the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) said, this is a modest report, but it has been accepted by a Select Committee representing all shades of opinion in the House. I suspect that many hon. Members accept it. Whichever party wins the election should experiment with the system for a year, see what happens and return to the subject after that period.
§ Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)
I endorse the comments of the right hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon). The proposal is modest and was no doubt achieved through compromise, and give and take by both sides. I accept what he said at the outset—that it is, perhaps, a transient report, but that we should implement it.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) and the Committee on reaching an agreement so quickly, and I congratulate the Leader of the House on bringing the report before us so quickly. I would very much regret it and consider it a wasted opportunity, as well as a waste of time and effort, if we were not to implement some or all of the report's proposals if it can be shown, as it has so far in the debate—although I am sure that there is a long way to go—that they command widespread support throughout the House.
I find it difficult to object to many of the substantive proposals of the Committee, to which I gave evidence, bearing in mind the proposals that I submitted on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. We submitted the proposal that, on Mondays, the House should not start earlier than it does at present, because of the difficulties of Members getting here on time. We also suggested that, wherever possible, the House should try to finish its business by 7 pm on Thursdays. That proposal was substantially accepted, particularly in relation to those Thursdays when there was to be no sitting on the following day, Friday. We 87 recommended that, even on other Thursdays, every effort should be made to allow Members to leave that evening if possible.
We suggested that Friday sittings should be abandoned, to allow Members more time to be in their constituencies, when offices, factories and schools were open. Alternatively, we suggested adopting the Australian method, whereby alternate Fridays and Mondays are taken off to give extended weekends. The Committee has not gone as far as that, but the proposal to announce at the beginning of the Session the 10 Fridays what will be clear will give people the opportunity to make appointments in their diaries on those Fridays. That proposal will be welcomed by many hon. Members.
At present, for good reasons, there are often great pressures on hon. Members to be here on a Friday, and equally good reasons for them to be in their constituency on the same day. If some forward planning could help us to resolve the problems of those competing pressures, it would, I hope, enhance the quality of work that we are able to do on our constituents' behalf.
I also proposed that, wherever possible, we should aim to finish between 7 and 8 pm. I understand the pressure from London Members to have a 9-to-5 day—
§ Mr. Wallace
I think some of them suggested it, although I accept that the hon. Gentleman personally has not made that proposal.
Those of us who cannot possibly return home in the evening accept that working to a reasonable hour is not, in itself, unreasonable, but peoplle object when we sit until 2, 3, 4 or 5 am. It brings the House and its work into disrepute. Apart from anything else, I do not believe that, with the best will in the world, we can do a good job at that time in the morning.
Perhaps we do not like to admit it, but we all know that, if we are discussing a Bill on Report, the initial amendments and new clauses are given a fairly thorough debate, but by 11 pm, anyone trying to make a serious contribution that lasts for more than 10 minutes will be told to sit down so that we can complete the business quickly. The later amendments seldom attract the same attention as the earlier ones, although they should do. I welcome the Report's intent that there should be a cut-off point at 10 pm. However, I am afraid that, at present, it will be only an intent—albeit a formalised one.
As I understand it, the process will take the form of a resolution of the House and a statement of intent on the part of the Leader of the House. But, as we all know, it is the easiest thing in the world for the Government to table a motion to allow business that is not exempt to carry on beyond 10 pm. We shall have to exercise strong self-restraint and discipline if the intent is to be translated into something that works and allows the business of the House to finish at 10 pm, followed by a half-hour Adjournment debate.
To that end, we must face up to the timetabling of primary legislation—from which, I suspect, Opposition parties hold back on the basis that time is often their only weapon. There is no doubt that that is more often the case in a hung or balanced Parliament, but it is rare for the weapon of time to stop a Bill, perhaps with the exception 88 of the legislation on reforming the House of Lords. It is a sad reflection on our democracy if the only effective Opposition weapon is time.
It would be far too radical for the Select Committee or the House to consider immediately or in the immediately foreseeable future the proposals worked out by the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the event of a Scottish Parliament. We could examine how procedures for a Scottish Parliament could be adapted to make Parliament work in ways that would enhance the principles of accountability, balance, efficiency and participation. It would clearly be impossible to translate them into use for this place. That is more a reflection on this place and the way in which it has developed and worked over the years than on the proposals of the constitutional convention.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
The hon. Gentleman is discounting the effect of open discussion of certain points in Bills. The sheer physical act of stopping a Bill has to do not only with power here but with letting people outside know what is happening so that they can respond. That is the purpose of the Opposition continually raising points about Bills; it is an enormous power, which should not be abandoned lightly.
§ Mr. Wallace
It is perfectly clear that certain parts of most Bills can be identified as important. The trouble is that, when guillotines are brought in, some parts of Bills lose the automatic right to be considered at all. Twice in this Session, the Government have tried to timetable Bills from the outset—the Local Government Finance Bill and more recently the Further and Higher Education Bill. My party has supported that idea for some time, but it must be put into effect with the consent of the House. There is no point in debating only what the Government want debated. The process must take due account not only of the official Opposition but of all the minority parties and of Conservative Back Benchers.
If a Select Committee on Business of the House is to be set up, it must ensure a proper balance and not operate in the usual narrow channels that we have to put up with when timetabling Bills.
I have noted the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). I am not sure what the thinking behind it was, but I agree with the idea of pre-legislative scrutiny in a Select Committee—we already have provision for such a Committee in our Standing Orders. That would offer a far more effective way of allowing Opposition and other Back-Bench Members to scrutinise legislation properly.
We welcome the idea of announcing business two weeks in advance; that too does not require changes in our Standing Orders. Perhaps the Leader of the House will be tempted to tell us what we will be doing two days from tonight—many of us would be interested to know. The right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) tried to introduce firm recess dates, with mixed success, while he was Leader of the House. That certainly assists planning.
As a Scottish Member, I welcome the commitment to bring the summer recess forward to mid-July. A week earlier would be even more welcome, but it is an important move. The issue has been discussed every year that I have 89 been in the House. The Leader of the House has shown some sympathy with the idea, and it is pleasing to see a firm recommendation to that effect.
The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) mentioned a suggestion which I hope that your successor, Mr. Speaker, will act on in the next Parliament, having convened a meeting of all parties to discuss the matter. It has not happened since 1979, I think, but I remember witnessing the problem as an interested outsider. It certainly did not enhance the image of Parliament when we heard about ambulances queuing up in New Palace yard containing sick Members who could then be nodded through the Lobbies.
The hon. Member for Norwich, South also mentioned that our business will be increasingly scrutinised and debated in the European Parliament, but he singularly failed to say that more of the business of this House should be debated in Parliaments to be set up in Scotland, Wales and possibly in Northern Ireland—not to mention the regions of England. Such a move would relieve the House of a great burden of legislation with which it now has to deal.
§ Mr. Beaumont-Dark
This evening I have heard one whingeing Member after another. If any of us dropped dead tomorrow, 300 to 500 people would be clamouring to take our place. If this place is so bad, why is that?
§ Mr. Wallace
That is not a particularly good point. Just because people want to become Members of Parliament, to debate legislation and scrutinise the work of the Executive, that does not mean that we should not be able to do it more efficiently. Earlier, the hon. Gentleman questioned whether, with larger constituencies, Members of Parliament would be able to offer the same service. Scottish Members, for instance, would give a far better service if issues such as Scottish health, Scottish education and Scottish transport were dealt with by Members of a Scottish Parliament sitting in Edinburgh, and if this House became a federal House dealing with macroeconomics and defence and foreign policy.
The hours lost and gained under these proposals do not seem to add up. Only decentralisation of power from Westminster will ultimately relieve this place of the overload from which it undoubtedly suffers at the moment.
§ 8.5 pm
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) that there can be no question but that this House is too big. I share his view that 450 Members would be about right, and I am sorry that the Select Committee did not have more time to deal with that. The role of welfare officer takes an increasing amount of Members' time, and so long as the House provides adequate secretarial and other support, much of it can be dealt with without any deterioration in service—as a brief glance at the United States Congress will show.
Another crucial point with which the Committee was not required to deal, but which is germane, is the amount of legislation that we pass every year. I do not have the figures at my fingertips, but I understand that the Bundestag passes about one tenth the amount of our endless stream of laws each year, many of which we cannot even remember the following week. I hope that at some 90 future date the whole question of how we handle legislation will come under the scrutiny of a Select Committee. Much of our legislation is produced by lawyers for lawyers. If Ministers were a little stronger when managing their Departments, I suspect that we could do perfectly well with rather less legislation.
On the subject of Wednesdays, may I put in a small plea for Select Committees? When first I had the honour to be elected Chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture, we discussed at length when we should meet. I was tipped off that it would be much better, from the point of view of attracting attention to my Committee, if we did not meet on Wednesday mornings. We tried for some months not to, but with Standing Committees on Tuesdays and Thursdays, not to mention all the other pressures of this place, like every other Select Committee we inevitably finished up meeting on Wednesday mornings.
I have no strong feelings about Fridays. The 10 o'clock vote on Thursday prevents me from getting home on Thursday night, and the idea of the seven o'clock finish on Thursday is very attractive. On the other hand, I do not believe that Friday business often adds to the disruption of Members' lives. Friday business is a problem when private Members' Bills are controversial; as I understand it, the Select Committee did not suggest that such Bills would not be discussed on Fridays, so I doubt whether the suggestion is as meritorious as it might seem on the face of it.
I am a strong supporter of the proposal to timetable all legislation, and I was particularly pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) support that view. Although I had just entered the House when the Parliament (No. 2) Bill was going through, I can count the years that I have spent listening to utter waffle being delivered by hon. Members merely to clock up hours in some hopeless gesture of opposition which proves ultimately futile. We do a great many silly things in this place, but that is surely one of the silliest. Even the public think that it is silly, it has been silly for many years and it is time that it was brought to an end. I therefore commend the suggestion of the Select Committee.
I am worried about statutory instruments, especially those which arouse much cross-party opposition. I have on the Order Paper a prayer with more than 85 signatures against a statutory instrument. It has not been debated in the House or in Committee, and I do not think that the Government propose to find time for it. That is wrong. There should be some sort of unwritten rule about the number of Members who can pray against a statutory instrument and a requirement that time be found for it upstairs. The public do not understand that we legislate largely by statutory instrument and not by laws. Hon. Members would be surprised by the number of issues that statutory instruments change in a year.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I support the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. Would he support one of mine—that, if an early-day motion, of which there are many, attracts, say, 200 signatures draw from all parties, it should have the opportunity of some debate? If not, what is the point of collecting so many signatures as an expression of opinion?
§ Mr. Wiggin
I accept that a prayer is in the form of an early-day motion. The difference is that an early-day motion chooses its subject, while a prayer prays against legislation. The early-day motion procedure has been 91 totally abused. If we all took them much more seriously, the Government would start to do so, but that is another matter.
The principal topic of my speech is the summer recess. I had an Adjournment debate as long ago as 1973 on the subject and I have since brought up my family with the difficulties of an extremely tiresome month of July. Last July was as bad as any. July is hot and London is full of tourists. We become bad-tempered and the Government are pushing against the end of the Session; yet year after year we insist on sitting through July.
Why should we sit in July? We do so because, if we rose at the beginning of July and come back in the middle of September, we would be forced to adjourn again for the party conferences. So what? The party conferences are so large that they have to be held off season in seaside towns, and by mutual consent the time for them is fixed. Are we really so uncivilised that we suspect that a Government would insist on driving on through the Opposition's party conference? I do not think that that would happen, and if we wrote into our Standing Orders that it must not happen, that would solve the problem.
Many Scottish schools go back at the end of the first week in August. The whole of London could well do without us, those who support us and Whitehall. If it is practical to rise in the middle of July, it is practical to rise at the beginning of July. I hope that the Leader of the House will not say that the Finance Bill causes the delay, because the Treasury have made it quite clear that, provided that the Bill is introduced sufficiently early, it can be through before the beginning of July. It is a question of timing. I cannot understand why we should have to go through the heat and misery of July when we could perfectly well rise and come back in September.
I have attended many of these debates and have found that we always debate our own affairs better than anything else because we feel strongly about such matters and speak from the heart. The Leader of the House has heard unanimous agreement from many hon. Members. May we please have some action?
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
The report will not be decided by this Parliament. I therefore wish to address the incoming Parliament, of which I hope to be a Member. It would be wrong to let this occasion pass without paying tribute to the last survivor of the 1945 Parliament, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot)—or Ebbw Vale, which is how I still think of his constituency. My right hon. Friend is the last Member who served in a Parliament which brought here hundreds of new Members who were dissatisfied with the way in which Parliament worked. That led to Herbert Morrison's reforms.
Fortunately, this is an Adjournment debate, and therefore wide-ranging, so almost every issue has been raised. We should be clear when talking about ourselves that the House is a strange place, in that the arguments divide in quite unusual ways. The television reports debates between left and right. There are Government and Opposition, Front Benchers and Back Benchers, London Members and other Members, men and women Members and, of course full-time and part-time Members. But no 92 one has mentioned the electors. We are here to represent people. We may not like to be here in July when it is hot, but there are many people with problems and, as I am sure many hon. Members agree, those people want their problems raised in Parliament.
This is an insulting Chamber. We refer to the Strangers Gallery when it should be called the Electors Gallery. We have not yet accommodated the changes which occurred in 1832 or, indeed, in 1918 when women got the vote. We still refer to them as ladies. Anyone who wants to see the real division in society should go to the House of Lords, where the lavatories differentiate between peeresses and ladies, lest ladies think that they may go into the lavatories reserved for peeresses. That is a division. We have women Members and we represent women—the assertion that "ladies" have made representations on this or that is insulting.
I will try to relate the proposals to the change in the functions of Parliament. I was elected in 1950—I believe that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and I are the oldest survivors of that election. I have broken service, so I shall have to invent some new category—great-uncle of the House, perhaps—after the election. When we arrived here, this was the centre of an empire and we ran a huge chunk of the world. When I was born, about 20 per cent. of the world's population were governed from this Chamber. I remember the campaigns, and there were colonial questions twice a week. Many questions were put down by Fenner Brockway and others, including me.
Britain does not have an empire any more—we are a province. Most of the legislation which affects us increasingly comes through Brussels, and Jacques Delors cannot be bothered to sign it in every language. We are observers of legislation that is never presented to the House. I have views on that, but I shall not go into them now. We have lost the power to determine what we do.
During my lifetime and that of most other older Members, there has been an enormous growth in the power of the Executive. I once worked out the figures and published them, but I have forgotten them. The growth of public expenditure from 1925 until now has gone up by, I think, 6,000 per cent. Yet Parliament still has the same number of Members. The democratic deficit in this country is that Executive power has grown and to some extent Parliament has become a spectator.
The Select Committees do a good job, but there should be far more opportunities for Members to raise matters of urgency. I once moved a motion of censure against your predecessor, Mr. Speaker, because he refused me a Standing Order No. 9 debate about the bombing of Oman. The House is reluctant to discuss current matters. We have not discussed the Gulf war since before it began, and it was difficult to get a debate on the miners' strike. We prefer to go through our regular business rather than discuss matters of concern.
I see this place as a forum where argument is put. I would not mind us meeting every morning as the House of Commons debating society, so that we could discuss the issues brought to us by our constituents. It is almost impossible to explain to a constituent with a problem why it cannot be raised on the Floor of the House. People say, "Tony, why not raise my problem in Parliament?" A few days ago, I was asked why the Prime Minister gets a standing ovation when he sits down. The questioner did not quite understand that Members stand in the hope of 93 asking the Prime Minister a question. People thought that the Prime Minister was so popular that on Tuesdays and Thursdays everyone rose to his every reply. I tell them that that is a sign of the urgency felt by hon. Members who need to raise matters of concern.
Radio and television have changed Parliament. I shall be candid—I say this outside the House, so I will say it inside the House. What is the point in being a Member of Parliament when decisions are taken in Brussels and the Executive gets away with it? The point is to represent people—to come here and argue their case. We have a secretarial allowance so that we can represent people, although it is inadequate for the volume of mail that we get. We have the opportunity to get a speech in the only newspaper not owned by Rupert Murdoch—Hansard, which is still a publicly owned newspaper. It is not edited—I am a great Hansard man—and I can photocopy speeches so that people can see what has been said. We can get on television without pleasing the BBC or being cut off by Robin Day—not that one's contribution always gets on the air.
These are not minor matters. It is of no surprise that even the existence of an early Parliament was a threat to the Royal Executive, because while people were discussing in public what he was doing he had to be careful. That is what we are here to do.
I will go over my recommendations so quickly that even you, Mr. Speaker, in your last remaining hours as Speaker, will not rebuke me. If this were a proper debate, I would make several changes. We should be a federal Parliament. The argument for a Scottish Parliament—and others—is overwhelming. We should have a fixed-term Parliament, to get away from all this absurdity of a Government changing the election date so as to manipulate the economy. I believe that 50 per cent. of Members of Parliament should be women. The hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) said that he thought that the number of Members of Parliament should be cut by half. I pledge to give him my full support on polling day if we could experiment with his party to see whether we would do better if it had only half its current number of Members.
We should have amendable statutory instruments instead of the absurdity of First Reading, Second Reading, Committee stage and the rest. All we should do is look at a measure, decide whether we want to amend it, and pass it once we have done so. That would greatly save time. We could do without the ludicrous debate that we shall have later tonight on Church of England legislation. What are we discussing? It is an absurdity that we should be staying late to discuss arrangements for funerals and the retirement of archdeacons and canons.
I am in favour of timetabling, but for an interesting reason. It is that when one has timetabling—
Dame Elaine Kellet-Bowman (Lancaster)
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
§ Mr. Benn
If the hon. Lady will allow me, I should like to continue.
Timetabling allows the Opposition to decide what to debate, and that must be right. We should allow the circulation of undelivered speeches in the Official Report. That would get rid of the abuse of early-day motions. They are simply a means of putting one's opinions on paper 94 because they cannot appear anywhere else. The United States Congress allows the circulation of speeches, and I believe that that is a good thing.
Ministers should circulate on the Order Paper the answers that they are giving to questions as well as the questions. We would then be able to make more use of them. I am in favour of proxy votes. It is an outrage that sick people should be dragged in and that Members on business abroad should be brought back. I remember a Minister having to come back from Tokyo because we thought that there was to be a vote. We must be serious about this. There are other things to do besides play the voting game.
We should have proper secretarial facilities and proper offices. There should be creches not just for the children of women Members but for those of others who work in the House—far more women than men work in the Palace of Westminster. Facilities for staff are appalling, and should be improved. I do not know how many people do as I do, and wander through the bowels of the House. Has any other hon. Member been below Annie's Bar? I was there the other night—it is like wandering around a 19th century battleship.
After 41 years here, let me say this: this place is an old museum. I bring school parties round. The school children know you very well, Mr. Speaker. They love you. They know that you wear a wig, but they do not know what goes on in this place. If one asks them, they say, "We like the decorations. We saw the statues. Who was that over there? Who was Mr. Gladstone?" But they do not know what we do. I often wonder how long it was before the Beefeaters realised that they were not part of the defence force. They must for years have gone on at the Tower of London, marching up and down with their halberds or whatever they carry, thinking that they were defending us. We still behave as though we were a modern, democratic assembly, but we are not: we are a museum, but because it is a museum with a kindly chairman we can sometimes make our case and sometimes the message gets across.
I hope that the anger of the new generation does not subside as quickly as the anger of every previous generation. I see new Members furious with all these things. A year later, one sees them with a party saying, "That is where King Charles I dropped his glove, and that is where Cromwell did this or that." They are so easily corrupted by the club atmosphere. If that anger is not retained and used to turn us into a modern Parliament, we shall have betrayed democracy. My speech is addressed to the new Members. I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to make it to the generation who will come here after polling day—many of whom, I hope, will be replacing Tory Members.
§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
I have found the Standing Orders of this Chamber, like those of any other legislative body that I have come across, as incomprehensible as they are unfathomable. My colleagues who were given the task of reviewing our sittings have done a worthy job, but the outcome of their deliberations is based a design that trims or tickles around the edges of the problem, and their report has been written with the interests of the legislature in mind rather than those of the people who work in it—us, the Members of Parliament.
95 I make a strong plea for the hours of the House to be regular rather than having this popping in and out at different times on different days. Like the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), I address my plea to the new Members. Our eight-hour day could be set between 11 in the morning and 7 in the evening. Those hon. Members who feel incapable of safely occupying their evenings thereafter could surely use their time in their offices doing work or even perhaps watching a bit of television so as to find out what the rest of the world and the rest of the country are interested in.
For most people, politics is peripheral to their lives. Thank goodness, they do not spend all their time wondering what we are up to. It is important that, as human beings, we keep in touch with what the rest of humanity is interested in. By the time we have spent Friday, Saturday and sometimes even Sunday working in our constituencies, there is not much time left for those with families—both men and women—to know what the rest of the world is doing, to enjoy the ordinary small pleasures of life and to spend time with their families. An 11 o'clock start would give early birds time to get up and do three hours work in the office before the House sat, while a 7 o'clock finish would allow late owls to work into the night while not keeping the rest of us out of bed.
I remind the House of the Peter principle, that work expands to fill the time available. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) made a strong case for limiting the amount of legislation that is passed by limiting the hours available to do so. Almost every piece of legislation that is passed robs some group of citizens of part of their basic freedoms. We are normally regulating to restrict people's activities in some way or another—certainly a great deal of socialist legislation did so. I am pleased to say that the Conservative Government are trying to liberate us from much of that, but we do not need to be here into the small hours of the morning to do that.
Our constituents do not know that we have been up until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, and they start ringing us at 8 o'clock, expecting us to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They do not expect us to sound thick—in voice, if not in mind—because we have only just woken up after another late-night session.
I am concerned especially about the recommendations that bear on private Members' time, such as ten-minute Bills and Friday sittings. I have been a Back-Bench Member for five years, and I quite welcome the possibility that I shall never rise to the dizzy heights or fall to the depths, of the Front Bench. Against that background, I consider it extremely important that private Members' time should be safeguarded. The ten-minute Bill procedure is most important to all Back-Bench Members, and sometimes to our constituents and others. Under the procedure, no one can stop us taking 10 minutes of the time of the House. No one—not even your venerable self, Mr. Speaker—can interrupt us. Those who feel from time to time that they are not getting a fair crack of the whip—they might feel that they are not able to catch Mr. Speaker's eye—can make their point by the simple procedure of tabling a ten-minute Bill. It is a procedure that I do not disparage.
I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that he thought that the ten-minute Bill 96 procedure as rather a waste of time. I have not often found myself at one with my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), but he recognised the importance of the facility for private Members, and I am grateful to him for that. I think that all Back-Bench Members welcome the opportunity that the facility provides. Why should there not be three ten-minute Bills a week—on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays?
We all know that we do not have to attend the House on Friday, but Friday sittings can provide important opportunities for us to air subjects in which those outside the House are much more interested than they are in the issues that we consider to be important. For example, there was an important debate on the Alton Bill. For many reasons, Government often will not want to allocate time for subjects that are debated on Fridays, but we are given the opportunity on Fridays to express our interests by using some of our relatively free time to express our support for and interest in various issues. We can show the citizenry that we are taking a subject seriously. Often the issues are subjective and concern the lives of individuals. In other words, they are not related to the rather mechanical legislation that we so often deal with.
We shall come to decide exactly what we shall do apart from regulating time and giving Members more time to be with their families, if they can return home. That is an important consideration. It is to be hoped that there will be more time for us to live like normal people. If they want to, the chaps can go to their gentlemen's clubs. Those who want to work late in their offices will be able to do so. Those who want to take on second jobs can do so in the evenings. I know that the lawyers might be upset, but it is possible to do a little bit of moonlighting if that is what an hon. Member wants to do.
It is most important that the House should safeguard the opportunity for private Members to speak on subjects that may not be currently of interest to the Government. Many of my ten-minute Bills have been ridiculed and derided by my right hon. and hon. Friends, but my post bag tells me that they have received a warm reception outside the House. I have a terrific post bag. I have had the opportunity to persuade my Front-Bench colleagues, against their better judgment, as they see it, to change their minds. I would not be so immodest as to boast of what I have said while presenting ten-minute Bills—things that have moved centre stage and are likely to appear in the Conservative party manifesto for the general election—but that is an example of what can happen.
That is extremely important for Back-Bench Members. We can say to groups of citizens, however small a minority they may be, "I shall introduce a ten-minute Bill on that subject for you." They love it. It is their chance, through us, to have a say in this place, irrespective of whether it is liked by the Government or the Opposition. I beg the House to hang on to the small amount of time that is available to Back Benchers. It is our time, and I hope that no one can take it from us.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
It is interesting—this perhaps demonstrates the priorities of the Leader of the House—that we are talking about our position and our conveniences rather than important issues such as commercial lobbying. There are two reports from the 97 Select Committee on Members' Interests and I recall that I drew the attention of the Leader of the House to the issue of outside interests pressurising this place.
I am pleased that the Select Committee wishes to retain ten-minute Bills and that it will not take notice of the Leader of the House or of my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), the shadow Leader of the House, by seeking to place a limit on business questions. I share the view of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) that private Members' time is important. Similarly, I think that Fridays are important. I do not share the view of the Select Committee that we should abolish 10 Fridays per Session. That would significantly curtail the likely amount of time available to private Members.
There has been much comment about the waste that is attached to all-night debates. That is not always so. I can recall an all-night debate in 1981 when we were discussing a Consolidated Fund Bill. The House sat throughout the night, largely at the initiative of the Opposition. As a consequence, the Government did a deal which had the effect of removing old people's dwellings from the compulsory purchase procedure. That is one of the most significant gains for the Opposition over the past 10 years or so. It was achieved because of the Opposition's work. All-night sittings do not always take place just for the sake of it. We often sit all night to try to achieve an improvement or a change, or a curtailment of legislation.
In 1981, both the Government and Opposition Front Benches found it inconvenient that Back-Bench Members wished to talk at length about old people's dwellings and compulsory purchase orders, so Consolidated Fund Bills were, in effect, abolished. We now have a series of timed Adjournment debates. The change was designed to remove the opportunity of a further successful initiative.
If a Bill is subject to a timetable, irrespective of whether it is called a guillotine, the initiative shifts to the Government. That is because hon. Members on the Government Benches can take part in the debate and use up time. If time is sucked up by those Members during the hours that are provided by a guillotine or timetable motion, that leads inevitably to the advantage of the Government and is to their satisfaction. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), did not explain the difference, to anybody's satisfaction, between guillotining and timetabling. By and large, they are identical devices. I have strong reservations about the timetabling recommendation.
When I gave evidence to the Select Committee, I recommended that a voluntary arrangement—there was one when the Broadcasting Bill, as it then was, was considered—should be followed. The voluntary arrangement for the consideration of the Broadcasting Bi11 was agreed in exchange for an extra day's consideration on the Floor of the House. If it is said that timetabling is necessary because of the imperfection that is achieved in allocating time for various sections of Bills during the various stages, it should be remembered that an important section of the Broadcasting Bill was not reached.
§ Mr. Cryer
I shall not give way. Several hon. Members wish to take part in the debate, and I do not want to speak for too long.
The hon. Member for Billericay made some generalised suggestions, including the proposal that we should sit at 11 o'clock—a convenient time after a cup of coffee—and rise at 7 o'clock. The reality is that this place has a responsibility to those outside. Ministers are given powers through primary legislation to produce rules and regulations, which we call statutory instruments. Many of these instruments provide criminal penalties—in other words, people can be sent to prison. Individuals can be deprived of their liberty following the decisions of Ministers.
All Governments use statutory instruments, and if there are complaints about the amount of legislation that is being introduced and enacted, it should be understood that this Government have produced more than most. That has been the position since 1979. I have provided evidence for the Select Committee, and I shall not rehearse it: it is to be found in the second volume of the Select Committee's report, at page 101.
There has been talk about prayers as well as statutory instruments. Last year, about 115 prayers were put down, and only 25 were debated. Those who say that we do not have enough time to debate prayers are right. It is no good talking about reducing the sitting hours of the House for our convenience when it is supposed to exercise scrutiny, when Members want to scrutinise and when we currently fail to achieve that objective. That is so whether the wish to scrutinise is a whim of Members or the wish of those outside this place.
We must examine more ways of debating statutory instruments on the Floor of the House. The Committee's proposal is that all affirmative instruments would go automatically to a Committee upstairs unless the Government put down a motion. At the moment, Back-Bench Members can require an instrument to be dealt with on the Floor of the House—and why not? That is a very useful and important initiative in this place, so that we can stop them going upstairs into Committee, where, by and large, scrutiny exists, but it is not the most successful.
There are between 1,500 and 2,000 statutory instruments, such as the one I have here. It is 74 pages long, with seven schedules and 123 clauses. The explanatory note takes three pages. It is the Uncertificated Securities Regulations 1992, and is potentially quite important. It is an affirmative measure, so it will have time on the Floor of the House, but there are hundreds more like that every year. There are negative procedure instruments which are supposed to be subject to a prayer but, in practice, a negative procedure instrument is hardly ever debated in this place. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments deals with all of them, and some are up to 3 in thick—thicker than many primary Acts of Parliament.
That is a matter in which the House is seriously deficient. Until it has a method of properly scrutinising its own prayers, when they have more than a 50 per cent. chance of being debated, we cannot talk about reducing the hours of this place, because the position remains unsatisfactory. I emphasise that we are not talking about paltry bits of legislation just to fill the odd loophole: we are talking about major pieces of legislation which often 99 impose criminal penalties on our citizens. We should have the right to make sure that there is adequate time for debate.
The idea of curtailing Thursday evening debates is all right for Londoners, but, by and large, several hon. Members cannot get home for tea and come back the next day. We should not talk about curtailing Thursdays, not least because of the argument that I outlined about the lack of time devoted to statutory instruments.
Fridays are important. Some hon. Members say, "If we have 10 Fridays off, we can go to our constituencies." Fridays are terribly flexible. We are not like factory workers or teachers who must be at work or in a classroom by 9 o'clock. We are in a privileged, flexible position. We are not accountable to anybody. We do not have a gaffer stood over us. Our gaffer is the electorate, and it is coming up shortly. If hon. Members want to be away for the Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill on a Friday, the electorate will tell them whether that is satisfactory. What is wrong with letters telling us to be here on Fridays? If there is a debate on London transport, for example, people in Bradford do not expect me to be here.
As hon. Members know, I attend the House pretty well—I am among the best—but we are highly flexible on Mondays, if there is a one-line Whip, and on Fridays. In any case, we are not here for at least 20 Fridays a year, because we are in recess. We already have a highly flexible position. I appreciate that many hon. Members want to go to their constituencies, but there is already a good opportunity. Therefore, I do not agree with the recommendation to get rid of Fridays.
There is an idea that changes would be better for Parliament, but I do not believe it. It is a question of the attitude of the political parties and of showing much greater encouragement. For example, the Labour party national executive could have expected all the women on the national executive committee to vote in every by-election to put a woman on the short list. That has not happened several times, so we can hardly say that a political party which is calling for more women in Parliament is consistent in its attitude.
The same is true, I am convinced, of the Conservative party. There is not the will in the administration of the Conservative party to ensure that women are elected to Parliament. Men or women, there will be the problem that Parliament is in London, and if hon. Members must travel from the provinces, they must travel 200 to 400 miles. The idea of shorter hours is okay for people who live in London, but it is not so good for people who live in the provinces.
It is not a matter of occupying ourselves in the evenings—there is lots of work for all hon. Members all the time. The idea that Parliament can abandon its responsibility for scrutinising legislation, for one thing, and for giving people the opportunity to hear their points of view expressed in debate, is important. The criterion for me and many hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is what we represent for the people who sent us here. It is wrong to put our convenience first. We should be asking, "Can we deal with our constituents' problems—the problems of the nation—in the hours we have?" The real answer is that we cannot, so the idea of curtailing the hours is not practical.
§ Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)
I rarely agree with the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), but I sympathise with him on the scandal of the scrutiny of statutory instruments. Obviously, something needs to be done about that matter, otherwise our procedures will become totally unwieldy.
I cannot claim to be as long-serving as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), but man and boy I have been here for 30 of the past 32 years and I hope still to be here, with any luck, in the next Parliament. In that time there have been enormous changes, but the one big thing that has not changed is the ridiculous hours. People outside regard as extraordinary the hours in which we conduct our business.
One of the things that has changed is Government business, which has expanded during my time in this place. Over the past 20 years, it has changed beyond recognition. There is far too much legislation. Much of it is ill digested, as we know, bearing in mind the tremendous number of amendments that must be made to major Bills, giving great opportunities to the Opposition—I say that quite fairly—to debate and to extend the proceedings. Governments of any colour should get their legislation more or less right before they bring it before the House.
I welcome the report, which I read with great interest. It will carry us not just a little step but a big step forward if it is implemented. My worry is that it will not be implemented in the spirit on which it was presented. I look forward to hearing my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House say whether there is a definite commitment to it by the Government. If, unexpectedly, the Labour party wins the election, I should like a similar commitment from the Opposition spokesman. When parties take over, they legislate very strongly indeed. I cannot imagine Labour Members easily giving up the chance of having open-ended commitments on many Bills. I believe that the Conservative party will remain in power—this is not a political debate—but my worry is that, if it stays in office, the Executive will still run the proceedings in the way that it wants.
I detect in the report the dead hand of buraucracy, not least in paragraph 84, which is about the summer recess. The Treasury does not like it. It says that we cannot have a fixed date in July and that the date must be brought back. Perhaps, as has been suggested, that is because it wants the Finance Bill to be passed earlier. The Treasury rules many things in this place and it has put its foot down in this case.
The other point in the report which irritated me tremendously is that those who organise the two main party conferences are absolutely against any change. The built-in bureaucracy of the Labour and Tory parties' conferences would not consider any possibility of the date being moved. I do not believe in such things. As we are making significant changes in the House, our own party machines should respond accordingly. If the worst comes to the worst, and changes cannot be made, I see nothing wrong in Parliament adjourning for the fortnight that would cover the two main party conferences.
I may be naive, but perhaps my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House can enlighten me as to what is meant by primary legislation. Is it every Government Bill that comes before the House and receives a Second Reading? If so, it would break the rule of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), 101 and all such legislation would sail on past the 10 o'clock barrier on Report and Third Reading. Perhaps I am wrong, and primary legislation means only the most significant Bills in a particular Session—perhaps only one or two. However, as I take it, with all the legislation that is to come, a number of Bills may break the 10 o'clock barrier.
It has to be said again that the House needs sensible organisation in terms of a timetable. There is general agreement that there should be fewer late nights. We also need better debates. I disagree with the hon. Member for Bradford, South, because I believe that, when legislation is timetabled, our debates are better. Both sides are treated equally, instead of Government Members being told to shut up in Committee. The feelings of right hon. and hon. Members are more genuinely reflected in timetabled debates.
It would also be sensible to schedule less sensitive business out of prime time, when it can be considered, if not voted upon, by those right hon. and hon. Members who are particularly enthusiastic about it.
There is no secret about Fridays. When I sat as Member of Parliament for a London constituency for six and a half years, I attended the House every Friday and usually took part in debate. Now I rarely, if ever, attend the House on a Friday—not because I am playing hookey but because that is the only day on which I can see people in the constituency at their place of work during the working week. They expect me to be there. They are not at all interested in Friday debates, unless they concern an extraordinary Bill such as that which the House considered the Friday before last.
I welcome the proposal for shorter debates on the Budget and the Loyal Address, but I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to consider why those particular debates are so popular. I believe that it is because they are not subject to the Whip, and right hon. and hon. Members take the opportunity to get away, unless they intend to participate.
I want all Government Bills to be timetabled, and I am sure that that will happen in due course. I am certain that, with the co-operation of Members of both Front Benches, we will have fewer late nights, and that that will work out well. I hope that there will be not an experiment but a definite commitment that will be added to as the years go by. I hope also that I am wrong, and that ultimately the Executive will not prevail and cut the Select Committee's proposals to a minuscule level.
§ Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)
The Select Committee's report seems to set out to give right hon. and hon. Members more time to spend in their constituencies and to make their lives easier, by means of a briefer parliamentary day and shorter sittings. It also holds out the hope of longer notice of recesses, of which I certainly approve.
No one questions why right hon. and hon. Members need to spend more time in their constituencies. Reference was made to the tremendous expansion in the volume of Government legislation, but I believe that right hon. and hon. Members need to spend more time in their constituencies because the House is doing more and more of the work that should be the responsibility of local government.
102 We do not have a proper local government system in this country. Its structure has broken down, and Members of Parliament are the victims of the backlash. It may be that right hon. and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies are more keenly aware of that than most, because Northern Ireland has no real local government. Instead, as the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) said, its business must be dealt with by the Order in Council procedure, which is an abomination. Nothing can be properly scrutinised or rationally discussed in that way, and the sooner we are rid of it the better.
Most Northern Ireland business could be transacted by what we in Northern Ireland call the theft clause—such as that incorporated in the Theft Act 1978—whereby Northern Ireland can be included in British legislation by a short statement to the effect that its provisions extend to Northern Ireland. We have asked for that to be done during successive Conservative Administrations, and during the last Labour Government as well, but we did not get anywhere. There would be an enormous saving in the time of the House if that simple procedure were adopted. That could still be done, and it should have been done long since.
Another way of lifting the burden of parliamentary business would be to let local government deal with local matters. It is difficult to do that in a unitary state, although it was successfully achieved under the Stormont devolved system. However, it worked only because it was run by unionists. The Opposition consisted of nationalists. That same situation will inevitably be reached in Scotland, whether the Scots like it or not. If one has a devolved institution or more powerful local government, there is a responsibility to work with the Government of the clay, regardless of their political complexion.
If much of the minutiae is delegated to local government, that will free right hon. and hon. Members to put more pressure on the Government. I am not sure that the Government want that. Governments do not like Members of Parliament breathing down their necks. It is our fault that we have become bogged down in detail. The sooner we shift it on to other shoulders, at a different level, the better.
Earlier, reference was made to the United States Congress. Congressmen are permitted to employ as many as 18 full-time staff, but they each represent as many as half a million people. No right hon. or hon. Member has half a million constituents. Few of us have 100,000 constituents. I did so once, and have just over 75,000 constituents now. That is quite enough, thank you. If we go on as we are, we must either shift some of our business on to local government or have a much larger staff. I do not see that the House could ever justify the vast increase in staff that would be needed.
It is difficult to make life easier for right hon. and hon. Members because the House has arrived at its present procedures after long experimentation and experience, during which the best way of performing the tasks that are the responsibility of the House have been refined. I do not take very kindly to hon. Members who complain about the conditions of employment that they find here. We are all here by choice. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) said that, if he or any other hon. Member fell off his perch, there would be 400 or 500 other people after his job. We all know that is true. No one has to stay here. Every right hon. and hon. Member could 103 choose to leave tomorrow, permanently. None of us has to stand for election again; we could apply for the Chiltern Hundreds and leave.
§ Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)
Is it not important for the House to be as representative as possible of the population outside, and should not we therefore act in ways that will encourage a representative and not a peculiar group of people to become Members of Parliament?
§ Mr. Ross
I was just coming to that. Coming to this place is not an easy option for any man or woman; so why are we here? We are here because we strongly believe in certain things. We are here to put our points of view, and to argue for what we think is right—and we must make a harsh choice in order to do that.
Life would be much easier for me if I were back running my farm in Northern Ireland: I would not get up every morning knowing that I was a target. It would be much easier for all hon. Members to return to their offices, or to other nice, safe nine-to-five jobs. As I have said, we are here because we believe in certain things; that is the simple, straightforward reason why we became Members of Parliament. There is an old saying in Northern Ireland—if you make your bed, you lie in it. It is a bit like marriage. Having come here of our own choice, we should accept the conditions, work the system and make the best of it.
I believe that there are good reasons for the long-drawn-out debates, the all-night sittings and the rest of it. The aim is to put pressure on the Government, whichever party is in power: we are not here to make life easy for them. A large chunk of the report, however, seems to be intended to make life easy for the party managers. Every Back Bencher and every Opposition party should oppose the proposals for that reason.
The Leader of the House was nodding a few moments ago, but he did not like what he heard when it was brought home to him. I am sorry about that, because I believe that what I am saying is entirely accurate. We should use the opportunities that are presented to us, and I am happy for us to keep the House open all night every night to put pressure on the Government. Like every other hon. Member, I had to make sacrifices to come here, and I am prepared to put up with the conditions. Hon. Members who have not the guts for it should get out of the frying pan.
§ 9 pm
§ Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) on the hard work that he and his Committee put into the report. I am afraid, however, that I have strong reservations about a number of points—some of them along the lines of those expressed by the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross).
We should judge the proposals on two criteria. First, what do they mean for the ordinary Member of Parliament? There are two ways of looking at his needs. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) cited the need for "slots" enabling hon. Members to intervene on urgent matters. Morning sittings could well 104 provide extra time for those, but hon. Members also need to be able to join in on the big issues of the day. The debate on European matters which took place before Christmas is one of the most recent examples: I believe that only about half the number of hon. Members who wished to speak in that two-day debate were allowed to do so.
I think that I am right in saying that 11 days were allocated to the great debates on the Corn Laws in 1846, so that every hon. Member who wished to speak could do so. I feel that that principle should apply to all big debates. Every hon. Member who wishes to speak on one of the many major issues that arise should be able to do so, on behalf of his constituents. Unless a great many days are set aside for such debates—as used to be the case—the only way to fit in every speaker is to carry the debate past 10 pm. In most cases, such debates will probably need to be open-ended. That is my first reservation: I believe that ending debates at 10 pm could further curtail the time available for Members of Parliament to speak on major issues, and I do not see why such a hard and fast rule is necessary.
My main reservation, however, goes much deeper, and relates to an issue touched on by the hon. Member for Londonderry, East. Our Parliament, although not exactly unique, is rather different from most Parliaments around the world—and very different from, for instance, the American Congress. Here, we have not a division of powers between the Executive and the legislature, but an integration of powers. There are good historical reasons why the Executive controls the legislature, as in effect it does; there are sound constitutional reasons why that has come about over hundreds of years. In any event, by and large, that is what happens. If there is to be an independent or quasi-independent role for the legislature in our constitution—I do not accept that we have yet lost all our influence and power to the European Parliament, as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said, although I accept that we must fight back to preserve and strengthen this Parliament—the only weapon that those involved in legislation have at their disposal is time.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said that one of the great attributes of the report was that it gave a degree of certainty. We do not want that; if we are legislating, we want the opposite. We want to be able to surprise the Executive on occasions. The whole purpose of Parliament is to some extent destroyed and demeaned if we have a Parliament which sits from 9 am to 10 pm. Presumably, we shall later have push-button voting to make ourselves even more modern. People have said that the proposals are a first step in the right direction. I presume that push-button voting will be the next good step in the move towards everything being clean, clinical and working perfectly. For whom? For the Executive—that is what making things more efficient means.
I argue strongly that if we are to have any type of independent Parliament, which is especially difficult under our constitutional system, there must be the capacity for hon. Members, either represented by their Whips or as individuals, to be able to negotiate with the Executive from time to time. The only basis on which negotiation can take place is on the aspect of surprise related to time. Time cannot be a totally predetermined commodity in Parliament.
§ Mr. Spicer
I have always held those views. I spoke about them publicly when I was a Minister. I have been in opposition and in government, and I have been on the Back Benches and on the Front Benches. Throughout my 18 years in the House, I have held the view that Parliament must have independence, although that is difficult under our constitution. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has worked hard on the report. The proposal, which he identified as the core proposal, for the House to sit from 2.30 pm to 10 pm, is the one about which I have most reservations, for the reasons that I have given.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. So far in the debate, I have called hon. Members who were not members of the Committee. I wish to call some who were members of the Committee. I understand that Front-Bench Members will seek to rise at 9.40 pm and will take 10 minutes each. If hon. Members who are now rising limit their speeches to, say, five minutes during the next half hour, all of them are likely to be called.
§ 9.7 pm
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
A Whips Office is a very fearsome place. When I first came here, I was told that Whips should always be regarded with great care because they were the business managers. Their job was to get legislation on to the statute book or, in the case of the Opposition, to do whatever they could to snarl up the legislation. I regard that as a proper role, and I understand it. Those who seek to take from individual Back-Bench Members the powers that have remained fundamental for everyone in the country for many hundreds of years do so at great peril to our civil rights.
The point that most concerns me about the report is the fact that so many Front-Bench Members, both Government and Opposition, find it quite acceptable to cut the amount of time left for legislation and to move the number of days available. There seems to be an assumption that Back Benchers speak only on private Members' matters or concern themselves only with ten-minute Bills. Those are all important, but Back Benchers also speak on legislation when there is an important subject and a long debate.
Those who suggest that power should seep down to regional authorities and up to the European Parliament have a duty to tell the House how well those authorities do their existing work. It is clear that the European Parliament does not exercise even the powers that it has at present to audit the behaviour of many of the most expensive of the Community's institutions.
I believe that, if the report is implemented, we shall lose a great deal of private Members' time. If we want to change the way in which the House operates, let us seriously consider increasing the powers of the Select Committee, increasing the powers of individual Members to have a direct effect, and making it possible for them to involve themselves at every level.
Richard Crossman, who spoke all the time about the need to experiment with the House, did everything he could to shut down the Select Committees that he had helped to set up. That is a lesson that we should not forget. We should not always think of Front-Bench Members in 106 terms of what they tell us they intend to do. We should think about what they have done and what they will do if they obtain extra powers.
Back-Bench Members in this place, whether male or female, tall, thin, quiet, overwhelmed, from a Northern Ireland background or from any other part of the United Kingdom, are the ones who matter most in the House. They are the people for whom the place was created. Their power derives entirely not from anything that Front-Bench Members organise but from those who elected them. The electors are the people who will be most damaged by a curtailment of the powers of private Members.
§ Sir Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North)
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has had considerable experience in the House on both the Back Benches and the Front Benches. She certainly speaks with considerable authority.
The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who is not in his place, said that he was against the timetabling of Bills. However, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) and his colleagues on including it in the report. There is a fundamental difference between timetabling and guillotining. Timetabling means that, from the beginning of the consideration of a Bill, the time for considering the whole Bill is bracketed, whether it be 100 or 120 hours. With a guillotine there are 100 hours of debate on one clause or one and a half clauses, and the rest is whistled through in no time. That seems a bad way of dealing with Bills, so I support the principle of timetabling.
The point that I wish to make has been picked up by several colleagues, who referred to the word "certainty". The point is linked with that made by the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) about constituency representation. I come from a constituency in the far south-west. For the most part, members of the public have a healthy view of politics. As my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) said, politics is not an immediate part of their lives. People do not much care what we get up to between Mondays and Thursdays. If we want to sit all through the night, it is something that Members of Parliament do. But if they arrange a month or six weeks ahead for us to attend a meeting on a Friday, they expect us to keep our commitment to be there. In my experience, they do not respect the iffing and butting that they hear from the majority of us.
Irrespective of their party, Members of Parliament come from various walks of life in which they previously gave commitments to attend meetings. But when they become Members of Parliament, they get into the way of, being much less determined and using the way in which the House works with lack of certainty. That is not only unfortunate but unfair to those we represent.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will accept the report's recommendation that he should give more than one week's notice of the business of the House. In this day and age, it is ridiculous that we cannot plan better than that what goes on in the Chamber. I think I speak for hon. Members on both sides of the House when I say that, if we are to hold surgeries, quite apart from other meetings, as I do in many villages in my constituency—I know that some colleagues do not do so 107 —they must be advertised in local newspapers and we must give notice of the times. They have to be dealt with ahead of time. It is ridiculous that we cannot plan our proceedings better. It causes considerable stress to the people that one arranges to meet in one's constituency, and to one's family. Lady Members of Parliament feel more strongly about that issue, and have alerted us to it more effectively than we male Members care to accept.
It is important to have more certainty, and the Committee should be congratulated on tackling the problem by suggesting that there should be 10 Fridays when we do not sit, and early closing at 7 pm on the preceding Thursdays. Perhaps that is not the best way to deal with the problem, but the Committee has given the matter considerable thought and has come up with a unanimous report. The House should accept that. I hope that, if nothing else, those on both Front Benches will press the Leader of the House to give more notice of future business, and to accept the Friday and Thursday early-closing suggestions.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I shall try to follow the example of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg rather than that of Fidel Castro, in terms of my contribution—
§ Mr. Banks
I do not like the idea of giving up Fridays. There is no need for the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Sir G. Neale) to be here on Fridays, as we rarely vote on that day. I understand that the reason why Conservative Members like the idea of giving up Fridays is that it means a waste of time for some of them, due to some nervousness on the part of the Government Whips, who keep so many of them here on a Friday in case something embarrassing crops up.
Fridays are valuable for Members representing London constituencies, as it gives us an opportunity to speak. Quite a friendly crowd turn up on Fridays to debate matters which are not of great import, but which give us the chance to do what my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said we are here to do—to represent the interests of the people we are elected to represent.
There is no reason for hon. Members to be here on Fridays if they do not want to be. I do not like missing the opportunity to raise matters in the House. This is a peculiar place, as we probably all understand. It is one of the few places where one is penalised if one works harder. If we turn up regularly, as one or two of us do—I recognise a few hon. Members around the Chamber—we always see the same people, although there are 650 Members. I have always found that intriguing. I still from time to time bump into Members that I do not recognise.
The fact is that, if we come here regularly and work hard, we are told when we want to speak—by someone who occupies your seat, Mr. Speaker—that we have spoken x number of times. Why the hell are we supposed to come here, if it is not to speak and to vote? Yet some hon. Members stroll into the Chamber after six months of doing whatever they have been doing, and whoever is in the Chair calls them because they have not spoken for six 108 months. They have no right to expect to be called by you, Mr. Speaker, if they have not been in here for six months. Those of us on what might be called the Stakhanovite wing of the party should not be penalised in quite the same way.
I have always supported the idea that whoever occupies the Chair should have the discretion to say, "We're running out of time; don't be greedy." It is surprising how selfish Members of Parliament are. They have prepared a speech and they are going to deliver it, come hell or high water, notwithstanding the fact that a large number of other hon. Members are sitting around waiting to speak. I have always found that one of the most unreceptive audiences is made up of people who are waiting for one to stop speaking so that they can start.
§ Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)
As requested, I shall be brief. First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) on his chairmanship of the Select Committee. Our comprehensive analysis of the brief presented to us has produced a balanced report, and I hope that the House will fully support our recommendations. To our critics, I would just say that it is not as easy as it looks.
For many years, there has been a notion, which was repeated this evening by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman), that the sitting hours of the House have deterred women from seeking election because they fear that the long hours and late nights will interfere with and undermine their time with their family. It is not just women who suffer from that; male Members of Parliament also find our working hours burdensome. They have equal difficulty in arranging family life to fit in with the long hours that we are expected to work at Westminster and in our constituencies.
Some have suggested that, by moving the sitting hours of the House to fit the usual timetable of a working week, from 10 am to 7 pm, mothers would be able to get back to their families and spend some time at home in the evening, so the family would benefit. That is not a cure-all. They forget that very young children are usually in bed asleep in the early evening. As my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) said earlier, that being the case, it would surely be better for the young mother to be with her infants during their waking hours in the morning. As I have raised three children without the help of any nannies, I am probably qualified to make points on this matter.
The fact that more women are now presenting themselves for candidates' lists shows that there is no shortage of initiative and talent. Better education and wider career prospects have encouraged women to seek wider opportunities in political life. It is for the selection committees to give them a fair hearing. Let us make no mistake: being a Member of Parliament, whether male or female, is a very demanding job and will continue to be so even if the recommendations bring about changes in working practices in the House.
The recommendation that the main business should generally finish by 10 pm will be welcomed by everybody. It must be a step in the right direction.
The proposal that 10 Fridays should be designated at the beginning of the Session as non-sitting days, and the suggestion that we should finish business by 7 pm on the preceding Thursday will be of enormous help to Members, male and female, with distant constituencies—certainly in 109 terms of family life. To finish business on Thursdays as often as possible by 7 pm will enable many Members to be with their family for a longer period. That must be right if Members are expected to participate in constituency work at the weekend. Even when children grow up, parents need to be around. Greater certainty of recess dates will also provide benefits for family life by reducing pressures on time that can be spent at home.
Some will argue that the recommendations do not go far enough. I am afraid that disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman): I believe that the recommendations are sensible, workable and sensitive to the needs of the Government, the Opposition and Back Benchers, as well as to our constituents and our families.
§ Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)
When I served on the Committee, I was particularly concerned about two issues. Democracy is not as strong here as we in the House sometimes try to pretend. Many people are sceptical about our democratic rights. I wanted to see how we could become more effective in the House and more representative of the population. Both are important elements of democracy. My main anxiety was that the Committee was so constrained in what we could consider that it was difficult to address those two issues.
The main way to achieve more representative government with more people interested in how and what decisions are taken is to have much more devolution. That is also a more effective way of getting more women and working-class people involved.
Anyone who wants to come to Westminster as a representative knows that he or she will not lead a normal life. If one wants a normal life, the last thing that one would do would be to put oneself forward as a Member of Parliament. However, although we are part of a system that means that normality is not an option, we still have a responsibility to know, understand and be part of as much of the life of our constituents as is humanely possible, given the constraints of the job.
In considering how Parliament could become more effective and representative, I listened carefully to those hon. Members who have experiences other than my own. I confess that my views are prejudiced by the fact that I have been a Member in a Parliament in which the Government have had a huge majority which they have been prepared to use ruthlessly. That means that l have not experienced the position in which a Government have had a tight majority and the Opposition have been able to use time as a weapon. In my experience, if the House sat for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, we would not have an effective Parliament. It is not the length of time that is important; it is the way in which we use time most effectively, which will allow us to scrutinise legislation properly.
I should have liked the Committee to consider other matters, but its terms of reference were specific. However, I believe that the Committee took some steps forward and that it came down much more on the side of those hon. Members who have constituencies and families outside London. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks): if his constituency and home were 250 miles from London, he would not enjoy Fridays in the same way.
110 We have a full-time job, but we have responsibilities in Parliament and in our constituencies. I employ people who work in my constituency. As an employer, I have the responsibility to meet my secretaries and assistants at least once a week. I should be able to do that without insisting that they should be as lunatic as me and work on Saturdays and Sundays as well. Being in the constituency on a Friday has become important to me. I want to do that without neglecting my responsibility to Parliament.
The Committee heard numerous views that it wished to accommodate. I was impressed by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and agree that our rights are critical for democracy and civil rights. However, sitting all the hours available is not the most effective way in which to defend those rights. If the House cannot organise itself effectively, what right do we have to pretend that we can organise the rest of the country?
§ Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)
I have two brief comments to make. The first is about Members being forced to vote or being encouraged to vote when they are seriously ill. Some suggestions have been made to ameliorate the problem, and I very much reject the attitude—my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House hinted at it—that there is no such problem. That problem is not confined to those periods when normal arrangements break down or when the Government have a tight majority.
There have been occasions when the Conservative party has been the Government, with a normal and natural majority, and when there was pressure on hon. Members to risk their health by sitting in ambulances or in overheated taxis in New Palace Yard simply because of ineffective whipping or because a wrong view had been taken about the nature of the business. I remember it happening to me. I had the pleasure of sitting in New Palace Yard with a high temperature, when my doctor had insisted that I stay in bed, in order to form part of a majority of 126 on two separate votes.
§ Mr. Stern
I agree, but unfortunately we are all, from time to time, at the mercy of the vagaries of those who are appointed to advise us on the nature of the business. The attitude so far evinced by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on alternative systems of voting for sick Members is simply not good enough and needs to be reconsidered.
The second point that I wish to make concerns a group of Members who have not been considered so far in the debate. May I make a shameful admission? A few of my best friends are members of the Government. Although long sittings are inefficient from the point of view of ordinary Members, we should remember that they are not necessarily efficient for the good government of the country. When we play our party games here, we can make matters much more difficult for members of the Government to carry out the job which we ask them to do and for which they are paid. That is the role of the Opposition and of Back Benchers. I hope that, in considering the length of sittings, we shall also consider the 111 fact that there is a group, who, although sometimes spoken for by Front-Bench Members on both sides, are entitled to consideration as Members of the House.
§ Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)
I was privileged to serve on the Select Committee as a recently elected Member in 1987 and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) on his chairmanship. I learned a lot from sitting on the Committee.
It has already been said that any change recommended by the House usually results in an increase in Executive powers. I am worried that that may happen as a result of this report. We have a democratic deficit, as illustrated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who called the House a museum. After sitting on the Committee for many hours and listening to experienced and inexperienced Committee members, I could not agree more. It is the hardest place in the world to change.
I tabled an amendment concerning sick Members. The Committee has received a reply from the Leader of the House on that issue, but his reply was nothing short of disgraceful. He has clearly not given his attention to the issue. We must consider whether we are a civilised Parliament and, if so, whether we should allow people to sit in ambulances in New Palace Yard. It is a grotesque spectacle that has never been dealt with before. The experienced members of the Committee were more against my amendment than inexperienced members. Perhaps that tells us that this place should be demolished so that we can start again, because it is extremely hard to get anything done here.
The amendment asked whether we could put our trust in a medical person, who has the trust of the House, to ensure that no sick or dying Member came to the House. Need we repeat the mistakes of the 1974–79 Government, when three hon. Members were brought to the House in that condition? One was the late Frank McElhone, who was forklifted on to a plane in Glasgow airport and brought here so that he could lie in a room and be passed as fit to vote. That action is inhuman and barbarian, and it must stop. I am glad to note that my amendment was passed, albeit with a slim margin of seven votes to six.
The holidays in July are another issue of concern to me as a Scottish Member. Last year on 29 July, as a member of the Select Committee on Defence, I was questioning the Secretary of State for Defence. One month previously, on 29 June, my family had their holidays and I had no time with them. I am expressing not just my point of view but that of other Scottish Members. If we have any interest in the welfare and well-being of Members and Members' families, surely we must do something about that aspect.
I was keen that we should have at least two weeks' notice of business. To be honest, I think that we should have more notice than that. A women's guild in my constituency sent me a letter last June inviting me to address the guild on the evening of Thursday 13 February this year. I wrong back to thank the guild for the kind invitation, but said that I could give a definite answer only 112 the Friday before. That system must be changed. Can we make some advances so that we truly represent our constituents?
I accept the timetabling aspects of the Committee's proposals, which represent a good move, but the value of the Floor of the House for debate has been debased. We seek to scrutinise legislation and pin down the Executive. My experience over the past four or five years is that the Floor of the House has proved an inadequate place for me to air the cares and concerns of my constituents.
If this timid report is to do anything, it will advance change a little bit, so we should accept it. But as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield said, we are here to represent the electorate, who are insufficiently represented. The report makes only a small advance, and we must remember that.
§ Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)
I wish to make just three points. First, the Committee skilfully produced a report which cleverly reflects the views expressed by the House, particularly the concern about late hours, as well as more obvious follies.
Secondly, much to my surprise, I have come round to the view that limiting speeches to 10 minutes is an acceptable and sensible approach. That rule should be applied as the general rule, with a number of exceptions. It should certainly be widely used in a large number of debates.
The third point involves a serious reservation. I am glad that this debate puts down a marker for the new Parliament, rather than trying to impose suggestions on the new Parliament. The broad acceptance of timetabling —the difference between timetabling and guillotines is marginal—has come as a great surprise to me. Of course we take advantage of timetabling, and are always grateful when a timetable is imposed. However, I regard the general acceptance of timetabling as one of the greatest abdications of a Back Bencher's power over the Executive, and see it as a reflection of Governments with large majorities.
I would always choose to be on the side of a Government with a large majority, given that option. Often Parliaments are not like that, however, and there are Governments with small majorities. In those circumstances, for the Opposition to give up the right to use time is an enormous sacrifice. The next Parliament could look different, were there to be a majority of just 20 or 30 for either party, and to give up such a power for the sake of certainty and timetabling is dangerous.
It is not just a matter of defeating Governments, which does not happen often. Through the use of time, one can secure concessions, and deals can be struck between small numbers of rebels on either side. I recall when Opposition Members and I helped to defeat a Government Bill. Unfortunately, it came back the following year, but we used our power. If we give up that right, I believe that Back Benchers and Opposition Members will probably be surrendering one of their greatest powers. That issue should be carefully considered in the next Parliament, not determined in this one.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I wish to speak about a couple of the amendments which I tabled to the report, but which were lost in Committee. Like the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate), I warn against the guillotine or timetabling.
On occasions, we all take advantage of our next engagement. If we are out in our constituency, and people buttonhole us with awkward questions, it is always nice to be able to say that we would love to answer them, but are sorry we have got to be somewhere else within the next minute or so, so that we can duck away—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shame!"] It is shameful, but I bet that we have all done it at least once, if not more often. The advantage to Ministers of guillotines or timetabling is that they can fill out the time.
Let us consider the performance of the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) when she came to the Dispatch Box for 15 minutes. Sometimes people would say that she had gone on a bit answering this or that question, but it spun out the time and cut down the number of awkward questions that she had to answer. Guillotines and timetables let Ministers off the hook.
I do not support the idea of 10-minute speeches. Tonight's debate was a good example of self-discipline. I may have been called right at the end, with only a few seconds to go, but I prefer that to people being restricted to 10 minutes. They do not give way or take interventions, which spoils the debating atmosphere. If we are not going to give way, we might as well, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said, hand in our speeches at the Table Office and not bother coming to the debate. The whole point of this place is that it is a debating Chamber.
The House is always at its worst when there is consensus between Front Bench spokesmen. It is important to ensure that the minority view is well represented. To try to squeeze it into 10 minutes when two Front-Bench spokesmen have had an hour in which to make their case is unsatisfactory. I warn the House: beware of the 10-minute rule and make sure that plenty of discretion is allowed.
Our effectiveness in this place has to do partly with time spent in the Chamber and partly with resources. I understand that that Top Salaries Review Body has been looking at Members' secretarial allowances and other resources, and I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to give us some news about what has happened to that review. We need some reform of our procedures, but we also need the resources to do our job more effectively.
§ Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)
When the Select Committee was set up last July, I would not have given it much chance of having its report debated before the general election, not because I doubted the skills of the Members serving on it, but because I thought that the election would be much earlier. If by any chance the Prime Minister ducks out of 9 April, I hope that we shall have another debate on these matters so that we can make some decisions before the change of Government when we take over later this year. It would be nice to sort out some of the problems before that happens.
I welcome many of the Select Committee's recommendations, but I have strong reservations about others, not 114 least because, as I said when we set up the Committee, the report puts the cart before the horse, as several of my hon. Friends said. I can think of no other institution in the world which would discuss how long it ought to work before discussing what it was trying to do and how effectively it was doing it. Those are the prior questions that should be dealt with. It is not so much a matter of whether the horse should be better fed or the cart wheels oiled as of whether the horse and cart are the best means of getting from A to B.
We perform many of the functions that we are supposed to carry out in this House badly. Although that is not a popular thing to say, it echoes the description of this place as a museum by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). For instance, do we scrutinise the Executive effectively? The answer is no. Do we scrutinise legislation effectively? Emphatically, no. How good are we are at redressing the grievances of constituents? There is even a fairly large question mark over that.
§ Mr. Grocott
I shall come to that.
How effective are we as a debating Chamber, as a forum for debate? I regret to say that we are pretty bad at that, too. This may not be a popular opinion, but "Question Time" on the BBC is often a more effective debate.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
One has to get on it first—it is even more difficult than catching Mr. Speaker's eye.
§ Mr. Grocott
Some are luckier than others.
We should, as I say, ask ourselves how effectively we are doing what we are supposed to be doing. For example, many of the assumptions behind the report and behind the ideas of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) seem to rest on the idea that a Bill given two days for Second Reading, 100 hours for Committee and four days for Report and Third Reading will be twice as good as a Bill given one day for Second Reading, 50 hours for Committee and two days for Report and Third Reading. That may be true, but I have seen no evidence to suggest that it is the case.
Even with endless scrutiny, the House produces appalling legislation. I am sorry to bring in a sour and partisan note, but in that context I refer to the poll tax legislation. Conservative Members now understand as well as we do that that was appalling legislation, which brought great discredit to the Conservative party. I am pleased about that, but regrettably it brought a fair amount of discredit to this place because people say, "What a ludicrous Bill—how on earth was it passed?"
§ Mr. Grocott
Yes, the Government have a big majority, but we must seek better ways to scrutinise legislation, so that the worst faults are ironed out. Debating Bills for longer and longer is not the answer.
That deals with the issue of how effectively we perform our functions. The other question, which has been answered in many ways by the Select Committee, is how Members' time should be split between time spent in the House and time spent on constituency work. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield spoke accurately about the enormous growth in the Executive's power. Do 115 we deal with that simply by extending the sitting hours or should there be a better and more effective division of our time?
In that respect, the demands on Members have changed dramatically. I do not regret that, because I consider that time spent addressing meetings such as those described by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) is just as effective as, and more important than, time spent in the House late at night scrutinising legislation which ends up with no change whatever in its content. We must ask basic questions about what we are doing here and about the balance between time in this place and time spent outside.
I strongly support some of the Committee's recommendations, including the recommendation for more notice of parliamentary business. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton said that two weeks' notice is far too short, but it is a step in the right direction. The fact that we receive only a week's notice is in many ways an indication of the contempt that the House seems to have for the needs and rights of constituents. There is a feeling that the business of the House, however obscure, must take precedence over the demands of people outside.
I welcome greater notice of recesses and endorse the attention paid to Scottish Members and to Members from the north and the midlands. They make tremendous sacrifices to be here. The argument about school holidays applies to many areas, but especially to Scotland, and we should respect that. The suggestion that legislation should be timetabled is also important, but I accept the argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who is a member of the Committee, that that risks giving tremendous power to the Government. After 9 April, I shall be much more sympathetic about giving tremendous power to the Government. However, I accept that there must be some balance in timetable motions, and the way to obtain that is to ensure that legislation is scrutinised by calling witnesses and following Select Committee-type procedures.
I disagree in many respects with the Select Committee's recommendations about the parliamentary day. We have heard again the arguments against late and morning sittings. This is probably the only job in the world—certainly the only job in Britain—where meeting after 10 o'clock is described as a late sitting. In any group of members that I represented as a trade unionist, 9 o'clock to 10 o'clock would be described as a late shift, as would 8 o'clock to 9 o'clock.
§ Mr. Grocott
No one disputes that—of course it is easier. That is well established and understood, but as my hon. Friend knows, there are arguments for improving working conditions wherever work takes place.
Conservative Members have argued against morning sittings, using the excuse that Ministers would not have time to come to the House. Against that, I have a game, set and match argument. Fifteen Cabinet Ministers managed to come along on a Friday three weeks ago to ensure that the unspeakable could chase after the uneatable. If they can turn up on a Friday in such vast numbers, I am sure 116 that Ministers would be able to come along on any other morning when that was required, either to answer questions or to deal with debates. I see no good grounds for not having morning sittings, and I hope that we shall move towards that when the earlier recommendations have been implemented.
I endorse the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield. In many ways, this place is a museum. It is time that we recognised that the world outside has changed and that we should be better able to reflect its needs. I welcome the report as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough and I ask for further improvements.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John MacGregor)
I warmly congratulate, yet again, my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) and all the members of his Committee on the speed and thoroughness of their work. When I invited the House on 9 July to set up the Select Committee, I made it clear that I had received many representations from all parts of the House about the need for parliamentary reform, but that it was also clear that there was little agreement as to what reforms were necessary. That dichotomy has been reflected in the debate and draws attention to the excellent way in which my right hon. Friend's Committee has performed. It is to be congratulated on achieving a unanimous report in what is, by common consent, a most complex matter. Another complex job is arranging the business of the House. Anyone who has tried to do it will know that it is not as simple as it sounds to arrange and announce business weeks ahead, because many demands are made at the last minute.
I do not agree with the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) that this is a modest report. He did less than justice to himself and to his fellow Committee members. The report has covered a wide range of subjects. It is notable for being practical, as I would expect from my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, a former Chief Whip. Often, we make advances by practical steps that can be achieved and realised in performance.
We have had a good debate. I am delighted that hon. Members exercised self-restraint and enabled everyone who wished to do so to speak. It has been noticeable that there has not been agreement on several issues, and that draws attention to the difficulties that the House will face in reaching decisions on the report and recommendations.
The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) suggested that the report made things easier for the Government and my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) questioned some aspects of the report from a similar point of view. I do not see it that way. The Committee was originally set up because of the pressure put on me from Members of Parliament on both sides of the House who wanted me to make parliamentary reforms in the interests of Parliament and of Members of Parliament. I should like to disabuse everyone of the notions that the Committee was set up to make the life of the Government easier and that it will necessarily do that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale spoke about the balance between the 117 Government, the Opposition and Back Benchers. Paragraph 7 outlines the principles that the Committee had in mind in looking at that balance. They include:
That sets out the aims that the reforms are trying to achieve. The Committee, in approaching its work and in the recommendations that it has made, has kept that balance in mind.
- "(i) the Government of the day must get its business, and within that principle must ultimately control the time of the House;
- (ii) the Opposition must have enough opportunity to scrutinise the actions of the Government and to approve or oppose its legislation as it thinks fit; and
- (iii) backbench Members on both sides of the Chamber should have reasonable opportunities to raise matters of concern to them and to their constituents."
The other important part of the balance is the amount of time given in the House to each of those different interests. In my paper to the Committee, I analysed how that time had been divided in recent sessions. I do not make this point to criticise, because it is right that we should do so, but it is a fact that we give more time to Back Benchers than practically any other legislature in the world. That was made clear to me when I visited Australia and New Zealand recently.
When considering the hours and sittings of the House it is important that we endeavour to keep the balance between the Government, the Opposition and Back Benchers. That was very much a theme which I took up in my remarks, and I think that it is reflected in the report.
It is clear from the comments of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members this evening—this is very much a theme of the report, and it appears at the beginning of it —that we must take into account constituency duties, a work load that has increased. I think that we would all say amen to that. That has been emphasised by the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) and others. I very much disagree with the view of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that by restricting some of our sitting hours to enable Members to attend to their constituency duties we are introducing a three-and-ahalf day week, or whatever. I believe strongly that it is right to say that constituency duties have increased and that we are all spending more time on them. The report reflects my belief.
It has been kindly said that the report follows my advice closely. It clearly follows the endeavour to keep the balance between the Government, the Opposition and Back Benchers. I am grateful that some of the personal points of view that I expressed have been taken up in the report. It is right, however—I defend the independence of the Select Committee—that it has rejected some of my views, and certainly I have reservations about some of the recommendations. Those reservations can be dealt with later when we come to consider in detail what we shall do about the report.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) talked about the impact of the report and the need to consider the issues raised from the point of view of having more women Members. I am on record as having said on many occasions that I want to see many more women Members, and I think that my hon. Friend made many sensible comments in that respect, as did the hon. Member for Durham, North-West.
118 The fact remains that a Member's job will always be a heavy one. As the hon. Member for Durham, North-West said, it is not a normal life. Although we may make it easier for some women to participate in parliamentary activities through some reforms, that is only a part of the process.
One of the most interesting features of the debate—certainly until the later stages—was the degree of support for timetabling Bills in Committee. There is a distinction between timetabling and guillotining. A personal view that I expressed to the Select Committee is that timetabling enables the House to do a more effective job in its scrutiny of Bills. We all know that in the past the House and Committees have not done an effective job in considering a number of Bills. We have all been involved in that. Far too much time has been spent on the earlier parts of Bills, for whatever reason. One of the things that emerged most clearly during the debate was support for timetabling. I suspect that that reflects a change from the outcome of previous discussions on the issue.
An important matter that the Select Committee reflected strongly in its recommendations, and which I reiterate, is emphasised in paragraph 8. The passage reads:The House, frontbenchers and backbenchers, must be united in its determination to use these procedural reforms to secure both reasonable hours and effective scrutiny. Otherwise our proposals for the more effective conduct of business of the House will mean little or nothing.I am convinced that that is right. As I said in evidence to the Committee, whatever may eventually be agreed on arrangements for sittings of the House, their success will depend on the co-operation and self-discipline of Members. Whether Members will regularly see the House adjourn in the evening will rest to a large degree with Members. I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) when he said that a small number of Members can frustrate the workings of the House. That is a view that we must have in mind when we approach the reforms.
I made it clear on 20 February that we shall go into the details later—I am not going into detailed recommendations tonight. I made it clear also on 20 February that I was keen that the House should have an early opportunity to express its view on the report as soon as possible. I believe that the House has welcomed the chance to hold this debate before we decide how to move forward on the specific recommendations. I felt that it was important that the House should have an early opportunity to express views, and this opportunity has been valuable.
The fact that I set up the Committee shows that we recognise the need for parliamentary reforms and that we have accepted in principle a willingness to undertake appropriate reforms. I can cite examples in relation to European Select Committees, the Transport and Works Bill and many others in which, in this Session alone, we have carried through a number of reforms. There is, however, no commitment—that was clear tonight—to any of the recommendations in the report. There will need to be further detailed consideration of those recommendations. Differing views have been expressed. It will be a fairly complex process to reach agreement on all the reforms. The views of the new House, before we decide how to take the issues forward, will also have to be taken into account, but tonight's debate has been a valuable first step.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.