HC Deb 20 June 1994 vol 245 cc22-77 3.34 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I beg to move, That this House notes the increasing public contempt for Parliament; believes that its organisation and procedures are anachronistic and irrelevant to the concerns of modern British society; notes with concern the Government's systematic erosion of Parliament's role in the consideration of legislation and its ability to hold the Executive to account for its actions; notes with particular concern the Government's use of civil servants for party political purposes; and calls for urgent and comprehensive reform of Parliament, including changes to the format of Prime Minister's Question Time.

Madam Speaker

I should inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Tyler

Suppose for a moment, Madam Speaker, that you were sitting in that Chair, but Edward VI had not had a redundant chapel available in which the House of Commons could sit; instead, he had a redundant royal tennis court. Suppose that in Versailles in 1789, instead of a redundant tennis court, there had been a redundant chapel. If one believes architectural determinism, our continental neighbours would have the confrontational system of politics from which we have suffered in this country and you, Madam Speaker, would look at a consensus of political views in a semicircle.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

That is factually true.

Mr. Tyler

As my hon. Friend says, that is factually true.

The question that we must ask ourselves is whether the two-party system is a product of that accident of history or whether, in some way, we have determined our own architecture and suffered accordingly. What is certainly true is that the consensus building of the semicircle has proved to be a great deal more sensitive to the pluralist politics of the 20th century—and possibly the 21st century —than the anachronisms of confrontation from which we still suffer in this place.

As hon. Members may have already detected, I do not have any great credentials for moving the motion. I studied political history in my long-distant academic past. I am a member of the Select Committee on Procedure—I do not think that that qualifies me for anything much. But, perhaps more germanely, I am back here as the prize retread, having been first elected 20 years ago, and, therefore, perhaps in a unique position to compare what happened in the early 1970s with what is happening in the 1990s. In the 1970s, television had not arrived and nor had the Select Committees. I shall come back to both those reforms in due course.

My essential thesis is that those two changes, of themselves, cannot resist and reverse the tide of alienation —the alienation of Parliament from the people. The institution of Parliament has become dominated by party games, with the side effect of the stark dichotomy that few people outside this place recognise as relevant any more.

Parliament has fallen into public disrepute—Interruption—as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) no doubt may vouchsafe. This institution is seen as old-fashioned and irrelevant, and its Members lazy, badly behaved and self-indulgent—[Interruption.] Hon. Members behind me may deny that, but they are all too keen to quote the polls when the polls suit them. The polls show that 56 per cent. of the public are dissatisfied with the way in which hon. Members collectively do their job; only 32 per cent. are satisfied. Just 12 per cent. believe that we work hard—nearly four times as many think we do not. Four out of five British people believe that "feeding time at the zoo" is a fair description of the House of Commons.

The media stimulate that response because they emphasise the conflict in this place and ignore the consensus. The television cameras are on for Question Time; they are rarely on in Select Committees.

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)


Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)


Mr. Tyler

I will not give way because I want to make some progress.

We are seen in this place as unnecessarily argumentative, and it would appear that one or two hon. Members now wish to prove that point. Sixty-four per cent. of the public think that politicians emphasise what we disagree about; only 37 per cent. think that we emphasise what we agree on. Parliament's bad reputation is a prime cause of the public's disenchantment with the whole process of politics.

Mr. Burns


Mr. Tyler

No, I will not give way.

The House of Commons is seen as being out of touch because, in many important respects, we are out of touch. Several hon. Members here will vouchsafe that many women in the community think that this Parliament is unrepresentative because only one tenth of our total membership are women while, of course, more than half the general population are.

In 1992, at the last general election, 24 per cent. of the voters did not support either of the major parties. Their views ended up being represented in the House by only 7 per cent. of the Members. Obviously, the argument for electoral reform and a fairer voting system is as strong as ever.

Despite being so unrepresentative, the two major parties continue to dominate the procedures and debates of the House. Almost 25 years ago, 90 per cent. of the population voted for the two parties. Today, that is not the case. In the 1992 election, the combined two-party vote dropped to 75 per cent. A week ago, when the Prime Minister claimed a return to the Buggin's turn two-party system, it dropped to just over two thirds—just less than 70 per cent.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

The hon. Gentleman is rightly trying to guide the House into behaving in a way that leads to more popular respect. Could he say whether the expression "Buggin's turn" was used by the Prime Minister or whether it is a phrase which he is ascribing to the Prime Minister?

Mr. Tyler

The phrase was used as a description of the way in which the Prime Minister referred to a return to the two-party system. I am glad to make that point clear.

No one can say that our debates in this place represent the full range of perspectives and opinions in the country. Only the most simplistic partisan could pretend that every issue could be viewed as Government versus Opposition or Conservative versus Labour. That is not the real world. None of our constituents and none of the public see the politics of this country in that way. Yet the House continues to operate as if that were true. Parliament's traditions, bizarre as they are, often cause consternation to our constituents and no doubt to those non-present people in the Gallery. "I spy strangers", top hats, convoluted language: is it any wonder that the public feel that we are performing some sort of cynical ritual?

The reality is that Parliament is not fulfilling its basic functions. Its first function is to call to account those who govern. That is true of the Opposition, whatever party is in opposition. That is our job. It is also the primary function of Government Back Benchers. Every so often, with a little freedom from the Whips, we see that happening—not, unfortunately, very frequently. The second function is the examination, criticism and approval of legislation. I shall deal with both those subjects briefly.

In calling the Executive to account, a fundamental principle of the British constitution is that the Government are accountable through Ministers to Parliament. Such Government accountability is essential if we are to have responsible Government. We have seen the creation and development of the departmental Select Committees. I welcome them and I am sure that all Members of Parliament recognise the effective work that they do. However, few would claim that they exercise such effective scrutiny of Ministers and their Departments that the full House need no longer fulfil that function. The Select Committees report critically, but how often do we get an opportunity to debate their conclusions in full and to follow through those conclusions to some reform?

I believe that the most important reason for the failure of the House of Commons to exercise its function is a lack of information. Government activities are not made available to the Opposition parties. Our winner-takes-all political system means that members of the Opposition parties are shut out of decisions and policy making. That is obviously exacerbated by the fact that the Conservative Government have been on the Treasury Bench for 15 years.

Let us consider some of the ways in which the parliamentary question is supposed to be able to elicit information and fails. In recent years, Ministers have developed a number of techniques for evading questions. They have become masters of the art. Holding answers delay a comprehensive written reply for several days. They say, "I will write to the hon. Member", but when the letter eventually arrives, it is not available to other Members.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Tyler

No, I will not give way. There will be time for other Members to speak in due course.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)


Mr. Tyler

No, I will not give way.

Thirdly, Ministers agree to put the information requested in the House of Commons Library, which is also an effective way to deny other Members the full explanation given in the answer to the question.

I shall give an example. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to place in the Library the results of market research on her Department's advertising and publicity campaign. He asked her to do so because she had stated in an earlier reply that such research existed for a range of campaigns. What finally arrived, after much pressure, were the results of research on only a couple of the many campaigns. Clearly, the answer did not meet the question. Any hon. Members or members of the public who wanted to look up the answer could not do so.

Ministers also say that the information requested "is not available in the form requested," or "in a complete form". Another of my colleagues asked the Secretary of State for Health for background information and data on monitoring disciplinary procedures against doctors. The Minister of State responded that the data were not available centrally. Presumably inadvertently, however, he then enclosed the data in an incomplete form, with a little note on the top, "Do not send". I do not know whether the civil servant sent it on purpose or whether it was a mistake, but how revealing that is of Ministers' attitudes.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as he was in the House many years ago and can compare different Governments. Does he agree that, irrespective of the merits of our procedures—there is room for improvement—he is properly exposing to the British public, if only the media will so allow, not the failure of Parliament, but the failure of the Government to take Parliament and its procedures seriously?

Mr. Tyler

I shall come to that matter. The problem has certainly been exacerbated by Governments' attitudes. I recall that previous Government, and some of the gambits that are being used now were developed in those years. We cannot let any Front Bench off the hook.

All hon. Members are well aware of the buck-passing between Departments. The Government have raised evasion to an art form, which is perhaps best expressed in that phrase coined by a former hon. Member, Mr. Alan Clark, who doubtless had experience of it—"economical with the actualité". We in Cornwall might not recognise that last word, but I think that we understand the sense of the expression. That is a very good way to describe the evasions that are now coming to the surface through the Scott inquiry on arms sales to Iraq.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)


Mr. Tyler

No, I will not give way. I have a limited number of things to say and there will be plenty of time for other people to speak.

Whitehall's guidance on parliamentary questions says that answers to Members of Parliament should be factual, straightforward and meticulously accurate. The Scott inquiry was told by a former civil servant, however, that Questions should be answered to give the maximum degree of satisfaction to the questioner. That doesn't mean they should necessarily be full. The Pergau dam affair was another example of the way in which limited information can be given to the House. In 1991, the then Minister for Overseas Development said that there was no question of linking aid and arms deals. Subsequently, the Foreign Secretary said that the two for a time became entangled. Why is entangled not the same as linked?

The Minister responsible for open government—surely a misnomer—has claimed that Ministers have a right to lie to the House of Commons. He said that it is sometimes necessary to say something that is untrue in the House of Commons". He gave as his precedent Lord Callaghan's statement on the 1967 devaluation, for which he later apologised, but he did not withdraw the accusation. The Minister said that evasive answers to questions can be justified because much of the Government activity is much more like playing poker than playing chess. You can't put all your cards up at one time. Obviously there must be certain cases when Ministers cannot be completely candid to the House; perhaps matters relating to sterling and defence are examples. But the Minister, in his misdirected candour, failed to recognise the distinction between the national or public interest on the one hand and narrow party political interest on the other. He failed to see the distinction between lie avoidance and truth evasion, and he unwittingly identified for us all one of the Government's serious attacks on ministerial accountability to the House.

I believe that Whitehall's guidance on parliamentary questions must be reviewed and rewritten, and freedom of information legislation would be an important back-up to effective parliamentary accountability. Already this afternoon, there have been questions about the effectiveness of Prime Minister's Question Time. This is a part of the parliamentary day and it is apparently what most attracts television producers.

Looking back at Hansard for 1974—before television—I was interested to note that the then Prime Minister, now Lord Wilson, and the then Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), who sometimes we think still is, were able to exchange real information. The Leader of the Opposition asked only one question and did not make three miniature speeches, and there were not three miniature speeches in reply from the Prime Minister.

Does it really persuade any hon. Member—let alone the public—that that 15-minute partisan jousting match elicits information? Does any hon. Member really believe that the series of miniature speeches from the Leader of the Opposition, the patsy questions from Government Members and the point scoring of the Prime Minister in reply produce any form of accountability? The traditional view of Prime Minister's Question Time is that is the centrepiece of parliamentary democracy. Heaven help us if it is.

A number of suggestions have been put forward and I was delighted to see that the Prime Minister agreed with my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) that there is a need for reform; but we must see what is on the table. I have great sympathy with the view of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) that advance notice will just give more warning to the Prime Minister of how partisan he can be on the day.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Does my hon. Friend also accept that it would be helpful to democracy if Prime Ministers in this country did what Prime Ministers in other European countries do, which is to accept that good ideas do not always come from their own party and to say so publicly at Question Time and also to apologise when they and their Governments have made mistakes?

Mr. Tyler

Having now given proportional representation to hon. Members from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, I do not propose to take any more interventions.

I agree very much with my hon. Friend. It is interesting that the Australian and New Zealand Parliaments—where I understand they have advance warning of questions—have not achieved any improvement in their Prime Minister's Question Time, but that in the Scandinavian Parliaments, to which I think my hon. Friend is particularly referring, there have been notable improvements.

I believe that unless we deal with the root disease, we will not achieve any improvements in the beer garden of Prime Minister's Question Time. But that is much more deep-seated than simply giving advance notice.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The hon. Gentleman read that wrong—he means bear garden.

Mr. Tyler

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kindly intervention.

I shall now move on to the matter of extra-parliamentary accountability, and the many institutions that have been taken away from us and which are no longer accountable to us through Ministers. The growth of quangos under the Government has been dramatic.

Mr. Skinner

There are 7,000.

Mr. Tyler

There are 5,521 quangos, but, as the hon. Gentleman says, if one adds the next steps agencies the total rises to 7,000. In 1993, those quangos spent £50 billion of taxpayers' money without our having the opportunity to bring them to book here in the House. Parliament's opportunities to question them are very limited and our ability, even in Select Committees, to ensure that they are answerable is very constricted by the Osmotherly rules. The hiving off of those many unaccountable organisations is an affront to the effective parliamentary democracy of this country. I know that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will cite just one example of such behaviour.

A few months ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) asked the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Further and Higher Education to intervene in a dispute over contracts of employment at the City of Bath college of further education. The Minister said that he could not do so. The Further Education Funding Council said that it had no power to intervene and the college governors said that they had delegated responsibility for such matters to the college principal. On the very same day that the Minister said that he could not intervene, however, he announced that he would hold back £50 million from further education colleges nationwide if they did not establish new, more flexible staff contracts. What bunkum it is when Ministers pretend that they cannot intervene.

In most cases, all too often Ministers dip in and out of controversies, simply to suit themselves. Awkward questions about the practical implications of their policy decisions are often sideswiped to agency heads. Witness what has happened to the Child Support Agency. It is surely objectionable that Secretaries of State have sub-contracted state responsibilities for prisons, higher education and social security benefits.

A veil has been placed between Parliament and those who are responsible for public services. I believe that the next steps agencies should be put on a statutory basis so that we in Parliament know where we stand in relation to them and can bring them back under parliamentary control.

As for the examination, criticism and approval of legislation, Parliament is still passing far too much legislation and even more speedily than it did in 1974, when I was previously a Member of the House. The speed at which legislation is considered has been a source of criticism for many years, but the pace is accelerating. Although the House spends about one third of its total time considering Government legislation, there is little effective scrutiny of Bills. All too often, they are considered in a hasty, excessively partisan and sloppy manner. For a variety of reasons, including partisanship, lack of resources and insufficient technical expertise, Standing Committees do not always scrutinise Bills properly. In performing our legislative role, Parliament has not done itself justice in the eyes of the public.

I believe that it would be better if, pre-legislation, Select Committees were empowered to instigate consultation and examination of legislation rather than for that to be left, always, to White Papers and departmental trawls, which the Government have conspicuously failed to make effective.

I will cite, briefly, three examples of poor legislative work. On the Railways Bill, the Government produced a huge number of amendments on the day that they were due to be debated. Once those amendments had been pulled apart, they were withdrawn, but further amendments were tabled at the eleventh hour. Therefore, once that Bill had received Royal Assent, a supplementary Bill had to be introduced to tidy up the mistakes. The Criminal Justice Bill of 1993 required about 100 Government amendments and some parts of it were not even capable of being enacted.

The House spent hours debating the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, the Maastricht Bill, but that time could easily have been halved if there had been prior agreement on the length of debate on each group of amendments. Existing procedures allowed for lengthy filibustering, which was meaningless because it was virtually impossible to amend the Bill. The majority of amendments selected for debate were either wrecking or probing ones. During the Committee and Report stages, there were 24 closures, which meant that about six hours were wasted while hon. Members went through the Lobby. The delaying tactic of "motion to report progress" was used on three occasions.

The Committee stage of the Bill took 163 hours over 23 days, and more than 600 amendments were tabled. Yet the Foreign Secretary told the House that, in effect, the vital amendment No. 27 on the social chapter would have no legal impact whether it was passed or not. What an extraordinary comment on our proceedings.

Few outside observers believe that we are too scrupulous in our examination of legislation, yet the Government curtail Parliament's consideration of important Bills by using the guillotine procedure. In December, the Government took two Bills through all their stages in just two days. We need to change Parliament's procedures so that there is more time for the scrutiny of legislation. We need to give Select Committees a greater role in preparing legislation for the House.

A matter of further concern is the increased use of, and scope for, statutory instruments. In 1993, there were 3,276 statutory instruments—two thirds more than 10 years ago. Four statutory instruments are now in force for each statute. What degree of scrutiny does the House exercise when fewer than a quarter of Prayers are debated and about a third of statutory instruments are not subject to parliamentary procedures? Statutory instruments are growing like Topsy. Even when they are debated, they are not fully scrutinised in Committee. It should be possible to move amendments within the rules of debate. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has drawn attention to the way in which those devices are used increasingly for political ends rather than for legislative means. That must be reversed.

The Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill, on which other hon. Members may wish to speak, takes the matter a stage further with the so-called Henry VIII clauses. The 1932 report of the Donoughmore committee said that those would be used only in exceptional circumstances. They will now be used increasingly.

The Select Committee on Procedure was permitted to examine the best way to give some semblance of effective scrutiny to "fast track" procedure, but it was not allowed to consider whether there should be one at all. Of course, its limited recommendations fell foul of the Government Whips.

The right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) will no doubt speak about his Committee's recommendations and I shall not deal with those in detail at this stage. But is it not remarkable, if not deplorable, that the usual channels are currently carving up what was intended to be a report for the full House and Back-Bench Members in particular?

The domination of the party in British politics has been effectively analysed by the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) in both his academic and practitioner roles. I hope, Madam Speaker, that he will catch your eye, because he can obviously develop his argument better than I.

Mr. Burns

He is not here.

Mr. Tyler

I am sure that his absence from this important debate will be brief. He sums up his case as follows: My argument, then, is that party substitutes for constitution in Britain (with party groups substituting for effective scrutiny) and that provides for a winner-takes-all kind of politics. There is a deep-seated malaise in our Parliament and politics. The medieval jousting in this Chamber is as irrelevant to the real concerns of the British people as the mumbo-jumbo of our neo-Gothic rituals. Only the built-in self-interest of the cosy cartel, which Front-Bench Members are only too happy to maintain, as it monopolises power between two rival and alternating establishments, keeps it that way.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Tyler

In 1780, the House passed a motion that the power of the Crown—

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has told the House that he is not prepared to give way, so hon. Members should not press him to do so.

Mr. Tyler

You will be glad to hear, Madam Speaker, that I am reaching my conclusion.

In 1780, the House passed a motion that The power of the Crown has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. If we mean business about parliamentary reform, we cannot simply deal with the symptoms—rowdy irrelevance at Question Time or impotent inquiries by Select Committees, for example. We must identify the root causes —the disease itself. We could do worse than start by agreeing that the power of the party has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished.

4.3 pm

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: 'congratulates the Government for its initiative in setting up the Select Committee on Sittings of the House (the Jopling Committee); supports the objectives of making agreed improvements in the House's hours of sittings and working methods; and welcomes the Prime Minister's recent statement reaffirming the Government's commitment to progress on parliamentary reform. I was surprised when the Liberal Democrats initially tabled this subject for discussion last Thursday because the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) was well aware that discussions were proceeding—I hope also to have discussions with him—about reforming the procedures of the House. Therefore, it is surprising that this subject should be chosen for debate today.

I was further puzzled when I discovered that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), rather than the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, was to lead the debate on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. My high regard for the judgment of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire was momentarily increased still further in the early part of the speech of the hon. Member for North Cornwall, when I noticed that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire had left the Chamber, which seemed to me the most appropriate comment, although I realise that he came back. None of my puzzlement has been diminished by listening to the speech—

Madam Speaker

Order. I think I ought to correct the right hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) came to the Chair to have a word with me at that time.

Mr. Newton

In that case, I must straightforwardly apologise for misrepresenting the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. I realised that he had left his place. I obviously made a mistake in assuming that he had left the Chamber, but, having listened to the hon. Member for North Cornwall, I think that he would have been better off out of the Chamber had he done so.

Mr. Winnick

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for showing me the courtesy that, unfortunately, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who moved the motion, did not wish to show to others. Is not it an odd state of affairs when the hon. Gentleman who moved the motion is a Member who was in the House for about six months and then out for 18 years? If it is such a terrible place, why did he spend so many years trying to get back here?

Although I share many of the criticisms that the hon. Member for North Cornwall made of Government action —obviously I would do that—was not the essence of much of what he said that we should take the politics out of politics? This is a place for political warfare. If we did not have political warfare in a Parliament such as ours, which we should cherish, it would be out on the streets. There is nothing wrong with clashes. Much of what we heard—I think that the Leader of the House will agree—was pious nonsense.

Mr. Newton

I usually try to be emollient, but for once I find myself greatly in agreement with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). He asked a pertinent question of the hon. Member for North Cornwall to which, no doubt, we shall in due course receive an answer—why he was so keen to get back in here if he thinks so little of the place. On the other hand, our track record in obtaining from the Liberal Democrats answers to any question is not good that may remain another one that hangs in the air.

It was, frankly—as I think will have been widely felt on both sides of the House—a pretty extraordinary performance. The hon. Member for North Cornwall made a speech in which, although I do not remember his exact words, he deplored the absence of proper debate in the House and then persistently refused intervention after intervention—interventions being one of the ways in which we conduct debate in the House, sometimes quite productively. He spoke of people evading issues; I have never heard a speech that evaded as many issues as his. There was only one thing in his remarks with which I totally agreed and I took a note of the sentence because it harnessed so much agreement in my mind. He said: I have only a limited number of things to say". He could certainly say that again. He said them at some length and, in my judgment at least, his speech was little more than a series of cheap debating points.

In the remaining few minutes of a speech that started by expressing worry about Parliament's bad reputation, the hon. Member for North Cornwall did nothing to enhance the reputation of Parliament.

Mr. Burns

While my right hon. Friend is on the subject of enhancing the reputation of Parliament, did he notice that, during the speech of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) in which he criticised hon. Members of, I suspect, all parties in the Chamber for being egged on by the media, a phenomenon occurred that occurs only when Liberal Democrats make speeches? The Liberal Democrats all bunched behind one other on Benches belonging to the Labour party so as to achieve the "doughnut" effect for television. In other debates, when they are not taking part, they resume their normal Bench. They do that simply to get themselves on television and to give an impression that they are doing more work than they usually do.

Mr. Newton

I shall not follow my hon. Friend down that path, but no doubt his observations will have been noted in these and other quarters.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Did my right hon. Friend notice that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) condemned what he alleged to be typical answers from Ministers—answers such as "I will write to the hon. Gentleman"? The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is the only Liberal Member who answers questions, and he gave precisely that answer to a question from me today.

Mr. Newton

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) speaks for the House of Commons Commission. As I am a member of the Commission, I hesitate to attack him in that role. I see that he has had the grace to smile, in his usual engaging way, at the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold).

Let me return to what I consider to be the main issues in the minds of hon. Members on both sides of the House, who will no doubt wish to contribute to the debate. In my present capacity as Leader of the House, I am more than happy to engage in debates on procedure whenever the House wishes. Nevertheless—as I suggested in commenting on the existence of today's debate—I hope that I shall not be thought churlish if I express some surprise at its timing. As the House well knows, I am in the middle of discussions with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) and others, seeking to make progress on procedural reform.

Those talks are taking place in an extremely constructive way, but—as with any other negotiation or series of talks—it would be neither practicable nor desirable to attempt to give a blow-by-blow account in the middle of them. I hope that the House will understand that at this stage I can only set out our principal objectives, and state—I mean this quite straightforwardly—that I shall be happy to listen to any further thoughts that are expressed today. I very much hope that that will give further impetus to the progress that hon. Members on both sides of the House want.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

The Leader of the House used the term "procedural change". Is he in a position to say when we can expect changes to the Standing Orders governing Scottish business? I am given to understand that discussions have taken place over many months, but have been halted.

Mr. Newton

I shall mention that later, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we hope that the new arrangements will be in place in time for the next Session of Parliament.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

The right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to suggest that he would accept whatever views were offered for consideration. May I bring up a very important aspect of what goes on in the House, which was not mentioned in that interesting schoolboy essay by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and has not so far been mentioned in the disconnected comments of the Leader of the House?

One of the most malign influences on how the public see the House of Commons has resulted from the introduction of those damned objects, the television cameras. It has led to the bad conduct of hon. Members —worse conduct than normal—and the bad conduct of business in the House. The cameras are frequently abused by the Government Front Bench, and some of the slimier Members, to get points of view across to the public which are misleading and are made only because the cameras are on them.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman has made his views known over a long period. I have to say that I do not agree with him about the adverse effect on the procedures of the House—or, indeed, about the view that the public take of the introduction of television cameras. My personal view —it can be no more than a personal view—is that it has significantly enhanced interest in what goes in this place, and therefore enhanced the centrality of Parliament to the British political process. That effect should be welcomed. I do not say that there have been no undesirable side-effects, but overall I think that the move has been beneficial.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that—contrary to what has just been said by my dear, beloved hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds)—it is not true that behaviour in this place has deteriorated since the advent of television cameras? In fact it has improved, as has the dress of many hon. Members. If the cameras were withdrawn, would there not be a public outcry?

Mr. Newton

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's latter point is true. As it happens, I also agreed with his first point; it is simply that I did not wish to pick a dispute with the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) on each and every one of his points. However, I made it quite clear that I did not agree with him.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Newton

I will, but from the large number of hon. Members present I judge that many would like to take part in the debate. I have said that, in present circumstances, I am not in a position to make a major, substantive statement about any changes and I do not want to take up too much of the time of the House. While I am ready, as ever, to give way to interventions, it will significantly prolong my speech if I continue to do so.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

My right hon. Friend referred to the public's interest in this place. They must find many of our proceedings somewhat arcane. Were we to timetable a greater proportion of our business, not only would they have a greater understand of what is happening but they would have greater opportunity to come to hear what we say, both in the Chamber and in Committee.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend made that same point crisply and effectively during questions to the Lord President of the Council a little earlier today. I understand that that aim—expressed, in one way, in the Jopling report —would be supported by many hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Before I make what I intend to be fairly brief comments, I want to inform the House of the regret expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, that, because of the short notice of the debate and his long-standing commitment in an equally important parliamentary capacity, he cannot be present today. He wanted me to pass on his regrets, which he expressed both to me and to the hon. Member for North Cornwall.

The starting point of our discussion is the report known in the shorthand of the trade as the Jopling report—the report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, which was chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), who may be seeking to catch your eye, Madam Speaker. As on earlier occasions, I pay tribute not only to him but to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor), now the Secretary of State for Transport. His appreciation of the need for reform of our pattern of sittings led to the setting up of the Committee.

When the House last debated the matter, which was some time ago, I made it clear that the Government would welcome the more civilised, more certain hours of sitting that the Committee recommended, provided that that could be done in a way that ensured that the elected Government of the day could get their legislative programme and other essential business through in a reasonable fashion. That remains our position. Since then, my goal has been a package of measures that strikes a fair balance between the interests of Government, the interests of the Opposition and, of course, the interests of the House as a whole.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Before the Government reach a conclusion on these matters—especially on the handling of legislation—will the right hon. Gentleman deal specifically with the arguments deployed by the all-party Hansard Society committee on the legislative process, chaired by Lord Rippon, which demonstrated authoritatively how unsatisfactory our processes are for the public in producing good quality legislation? That is due not in small measure to the amount of time wasting in dealing with legislation, to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) referred.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also deal specifically with the question raised by Sir Thomas Bingham, the Master of the Rolls, in his Denning lecture, about the inadequate amount of time being given by Parliament and the Government to the recommendations of the Law Commission, fewer and fewer of which are being acted upon by the House? Instead, they are lying collecting dust on the shelves, not because they are not worthy, but because the Government cannot find the time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. This is a very long intervention.

Mr. Newton

I have two brief observations to make on that intervention. First, there is quite an amount in the report of the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government—although I accept that it goes wider—which interrelates with the proposals that my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale put forward in his report on the way in which the House approaches legislation and the discussion of legislation. Secondly, for what the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland shorthanded as Law Commission Bills or law reform Bills, procedures already exist in both Houses of Parliament. In this House, there is the provision, for example, for some legislation to go to Second Reading Committees, which are designed to facilitate the passage of legislation when it is non-controversial. I better openly say that it was more difficult to operate those procedures during the period when the usual channels were not operating. I am hopeful that, now we are back to a more normal pattern of relationships between the two Front Benches, some of those difficulties may ease.

The overall objective that we all have was well put by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in a press conference that he held a week ago today, when he said: I hope we can find ways of enabling the Commons to do its business in more sensible ways, in more sensible hours without either unacceptably reducing the government's capacity to carry its programme, or reducing the Opposition's flexibility in deploying and pressing its case against government legislation. I believe that this effort has very strong support on both sides of the House and very strong support outside the House from millions of people who follow our proceedings. The government is keen to make progress on this front, if the Opposition are equally keen", I see no reason to doubt that they are. He continued: I hope we should be able to map the way forward before the summer recess.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Newton

Yes, I shall, but I must cease to give way quite so frequently if other hon. Members are to have a chance to speak.

Mr. Flynn

In support of that statement by the Prime Minister, I gave him 24 hours notice last week of a question that I asked in an entirely non-combative way. The answer that I received was described in The Times editorial as being a typical civil service briefing with a party-political jibe in the tail. If the Prime Minister is failing to rise to his own challenge, why should the House take him seriously?

Mr. Newton

Frankly, that is a cheap debating point rivalling the comments that we heard from the hon. Member for North Cornwall. Of course I was aware of, and had seen, the hon. Gentleman's letter to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister setting out his question. I heard the reply. I thought that it was a properly considered reply and that my right hon. Friend responded in the way in which the hon. Gentleman had made possible and I cleave to that view.

In the last debate on the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, he made a comment with which I very much agree. He said: when considering altering parliamentary procedure, it is important to seek to do it on the basis of consensus."—[Official Report, 2 March 1992; Vol. 205, c. 74.] That is very much the spirit in which I am conducting my current discussions and in which they are being conducted in other quarters as well. Since the usual channels have resumed, we have made good progress towards that objective and I hope that I shall also be able to have constructive discussions with the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. Our aim, as I have said, is to be able to map the way forward before the summer recess and I shall give further indications on what we may be able to achieve as soon as I am able.

However, I should like to underline something that I said either in response to an intervention or in response to one of the questions at Lord President's questions a few moments ago. I hope that the House will not underestimate the extent to which considerable progress has been made towards some of the objectives in the Jopling report in the management of this Session's business. Excluding Consolidated Fund debates, which are, of course, effectively private Members' time, we have sat after midnight on only 17 occasions out of 116. The longest sitting lasted until 3.22 am and only one other sitting went beyond 3 am. I think that the hon. Member for North Cornwall will agree, given his previous experience in this place, that the almost routine all-night marathons of the 1970s and the early part of the 1980s have effectively become things of the past. We sit to those hours, or all night, far less frequently than was the case when I became a Member 20 years ago.

We have tried to arrange less contentious business—this is much in line with one of the Jopling recommendations—for Thursday evenings to facilitate the passage back to their constituencies of Members from further afield who wish to be in their constituencies on Friday.

I have sought to give Members as much notice as possible of the dates of recesses.

Mr. Tony Banks

What about the summer recess?

Several hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Newton

I understand the general interest in the summer recess. I am not in a position to be as forthcoming as I should like about that. I am conscious that on a couple of occasions I have given so much advance notice of the dates of other recesses that they have been overlooked and complaints have been made, when in fact the dates have been announced long since. On those occasions, some hon. Members were still unaware of the dates. We have, however, made some progress.

In short, even within the present procedural rules, an approach to business management has been taken that has represented a deliberate wish to be responsive to the wishes of the House. That approach has already enabled us to make useful progress towards meeting those wishes. In doing so—I think that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East will agree with me—we have created a useful foundation on which we may be able to make further progress, which is precisely what we are seeking to do.

Given the time that has been taken by interventions, I shall not spend a great deal of time commenting on other recent reforms. I hope, however, that the House will not underestimate them. I have in mind the development of the European Standing Committees, which has helped to relieve the pressure of business on the Floor of the House. The volume of private business has been substantially reduced by the passage of the Transport and Works Act 1992.

In this Parliament, the system of departmental Select Committees—it has been referred to already, but the extent to which Committees have improved the capacity of the House to hold the Executive to account has perhaps not been acknowledged—has been consolidated and extended. It is with some considerable pleasure that I find myself the Leader of the House who has extended the Select Committee system to Northern Ireland affairs and has achieved the establishment, after a long period of controversy, of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I pay tribute to the efforts that the Leader of the House has made. Will he be prepared to allow both the European Standing Committees and the Select Committees to have greater rights so that they can move amendments to the legislation that they are monitoring and can demand that it be fully debated on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Newton

It is always open to Committees to make proposals about debates on the Floor of the House. We always consider such proposals with great care.

I promised the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) that I would respond to his intervention and I shall do so before I resume my place. There are one or two further procedural developments that I hope to bring before the House in the near future.

In February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland published the Government's proposals for improvements in the way in which we handle Scottish business. The aim, as I think I explained earlier—ray right hon. Friend and I hope to bring forward the proposals shortly—is to give Scottish Members additional opportunities to raise Scottish concerns without in any way diminishing their rights to debate Scottish issues on the Floor of the House.

Under the proposals, the Scottish Grand Committee will be able to deal with a wide range of business, including the Second Reading of Bills, questions to Scottish Office Ministers, a new procedure for short debates, ministerial statements and general debates on topics chosen by the Government, the Official Opposition or by the minority parties. We envisage that the Scottish Grand Committee will hold some of its meetings in Scotland, not only in Edinburgh but in other parts of that country, provided that the necessary facilities are available. As I have said, it is our intention that those reforms should take effect at the beginning of the next Session.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Has any more thought been given to the critical question whether the head of the Crown Office, the Lord Advocate, can be subjected to direct questioning by Members of this House? For that matter, has any more thought been given to whether the Minister of State, Scottish Office, who plays a very active, critical and controversial part in the affairs of Scotland, could also be subject to questioning by Members of the House of Commons?

Mr. Newton

As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, he raised those matters in a point of order towards the end of last week. I hope that he will not mind my saying that he also spoke to me informally afterwards about his concerns, and I undertook to look further into the points that he had raised. I will do that, but I hope that he will understand that I cannot respond further across the Dispatch Box this afternoon.

There is really only one other point to which I want to refer, which may introduce slightly more controversy and on which some hon. Members may wish to comment. With regard to procedural reform or change, we have proposals for a new procedure for dealing with deregulation orders once the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill has been enacted.

The House has already debated the Procedure Committee's valuable report on that subject. I am riot quite sure whether I understood the references of the hon. Member for North Cornwall to that point, because the Government have accepted virtually all the Procedure Committee's recommendations in that area, as the Chairman of that Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton very fairly acknowledged.

The procedure will involve—this point relates to a number of strands in the debate—widespread public consultation before a proposal is brought forward and scrutiny by an all-party Select Committee with powers to take evidence from witnesses and to report its conclusions to the House. That will ensure that some useful but non-contentious deregulation measures can be enacted with full public and parliamentary scrutiny, but without adding still further to the pressure on the Floor of the House which is one of the things that so many hon. Members wish to see reduced.

I realise that, with respect to the main issue on people's minds, I have been able to do little more this afternoon than to say that I continue to listen against a background of continuing discussion. However, I look forward to the rest of the debate and to the comments that others will make. I hope that this debate will give a further impetus to the reform which I am sure is widely supported on both sides of the House.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I say that there is a great deal of interest in the debate, but only about two hours before the winding-up speeches must start. I appeal for short speeches.

4.32 pm
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

I will certainly try to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In opening the debate, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) suggested a reform which does not seem to have occurred to the Jopling Committee. The hon. Gentleman suggested that we could enhance our public reputation by redesigning the building. He suggested that we should sit around in a semicircle, rather than in this adversarial setting, perhaps on bean bags—[Interruption.] That would enable me to sit beside the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) and I would like that very much. However, it would make no difference to the political differences between us.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall went on to describe his parliamentary colleagues as lazy, badly behaved and self-indulgent. I do not have the hon. Gentleman's experience of the Liberal Democratic parliamentary group, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that he may be on to something.

Mr. Tyler

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I want to put on record the fact that I was talking about the view of the public as displayed by a MORI public opinion poll. It was not my view.

Mr. Brown

I am perfectly willing to accept from the hon. Gentleman that that is the public's view of the Liberal Democratic parliamentary group and it is fair to say that the recent election results rather bear that out.

Not unusually for the Liberal Democrats, the motion confuses two different issues right at the beginning and then carries on in a similar muddled vein. It is true that the Government are unpopular. However, the Liberal Democratic motion confuses that with public contempt for the institution of Parliament. Dissatisfaction with the Executive and the Executive's decisions is not the same as disenchantment with parliamentary democracy. There is no widespread demand in this country for another form of government—not communism, not government by workers' soviet, not military rule, not fascist dictatorship, not even a change in the election system to give the Liberal Democrats a permanent veto over the decisions of Conservative or Labour Governments.

The motion goes on to criticise the organisation and procedures of the House. Of course, there is a very strong case for reform, although it is not made out in the motion, which does not contain a single constructive suggestion. In fact, the Jopling report contains a number of constructive suggestions and discussions are taking place in the normal way with a view to making progress on the Jopling recommendations and other ideas that sit logically alongside them. I am not in a position today to state the view of the parliamentary Labour party; nor is it right that I should.

Mr. Tony Banks

I take my hon. Friend back slightly to the layout of the Chamber. Is it not a fact that if 650 people were chosen at random—indeed, looking around the Chamber, perhaps they were—and put in this place, because of the confrontational nature of the layout, they would behave in precisely the same way as hon. Members behave during Prime Minister's Question Time? Would not it be appropriate to look at the layout of the Chamber and do something about the appalling lack of facilities for Members? Why cannot we have individual desks so that we could speak from them, rather than stand in this rudimentary, confrontational Chamber which exacerbates feelings in this place?

Mr. Brown

I have not given great thought to the positioning of furniture in the building. I am a bit of a traditionalist; I rather like the Chamber as it is. Just about the only chance of securing a parliamentary majority for the Liberal Democrats would be if hon. Members were chosen entirely at random. I do not see any other prospect of their gaining very much success.

Before making further progress, it is absolutely right to thank the Lord President of the Council for the efficient and constructive way in which he is undertaking the task of reform. In particular, I thank him for his courtesy in the discussions on the detail of the proposals. I hope that we will have something of substance to put in front of the House soon and then we will be in a position to hear the views of the House. Not all those matters are adversarial between the parties; indeed, some are neutral. It is a matter of preference for the House rather than party political advantage.

It is perfectly reasonable, for example, for Members of Parliament to want some certainty in allocating time for constituency business and other work that cannot be done in the House itself. It is also perfectly reasonable that Members of Parliament should like as much notice of business as can reasonably be provided. It also seems to me to be perfectly possible to bring about evolutionary change in the way in which we carry out our business in the House. Such change should be brought about by consensus.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Is not my hon. Friend falling into the chasm of accepting the basic premise which operates in this place: that the Executive controls the timetable of Parliament? I think that that is wrong. The debate is about fundamental reform whereby control of the business of this place is repatriated to hon. Members rather than left with the Executive. It should be left to a Select Committee of distinguished parliamentarians who are not members of the Government. That is the basis of reform and many good things could flow from it.

Mr. Brown

I do not want to become involved in the details of the discussion, because they are not complete and there are matters still to be resolved between us before we put proposals to other colleagues. However, there is absolutely no chance whatsoever of my falling into a parliamentary chasm, because I always send somebody from the Whips Office to walk in front of me.

Change should be by consensus. It should not, as the Leader of the House has confirmed, disturb the existing balance between the rights of the Executive and the rights of the House—between Government and Opposition. The Liberal Democrat demand for immediate action goes very close to being a demand for the Executive to impose their version of change and reform on the House, whether hon. Members like it or not. That would be foolish. We should proceed by consensus and not by encouraging the Executive to impose their view on us.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)


Mr. Brown

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, whom I am pleased to see taking part in the debate.

Mr. Kirkwood

I understand that we need to proceed by consensus and that no one can impose solutions over people's heads, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that there will come a time when unanimity will not be possible, particularly among Labour Back Benchers, and that he will then have to use his best offices to persuade them of the need to change, even it means that some of them will be disappointed?

Mr. Brown

I made it overwhelmingly clear that I support the case for reform and for consulting other people, among whom I would include the hon. Gentleman. We must proceed by consensus among the different political parties. People will always disagree on some points, but we shall have to find a way of resolving them. That should not strike any politician as being unusual or impossible to achieve. The Government and the parliamentary Labour party want to proceed in a way that is reasonable and sensible, probably not least because both see the realistic prospect of our roles being reversed, which is more than one can say about the Liberal Democrats.

I should like to put in a word for the idea of non-adversarial examination of technical legislation: the annual Finance Bill, omnibus law reform, home affairs measures—perhaps building on the work of the Law Commission—and detailed Department of the Environment legislation. The idea, which has been canvassed before, is that technical parts of, for example, the Finance Bill could be separated from the rest of the Bill. Detailed measures could be dealt with under a separate Taxes Management Bill, which could be scrutinised in the same way as we scrutinise European legislation. It would require a larger gap between Second Reading and Committee stage, and as a quid pro quo the Bill would have to be passed on a tighter and, let me say it now, agreed timetable.

I accept that that is not the Government's view. Such a policy, however, would improve parliamentary scrutiny, enable Members of Parliament other than Ministers to hear expert opinion and enhance our standing with specialists who would like to explain their position to us.

I am not suggesting such a procedure for matters that are politically contentious between the two parties. The proposal would deal with technical matters, on which any reasonable person would like to hear the views of specialists before coming to a final conclusion.

There are other obvious areas for reform. More effective use could be made of scrutiny by Committee. If we are seeking to gain constituency time, the proposal to do the House's Friday work on Wednesday mornings merits consideration. The proposal has no balance of advantage between Government and Opposition, although other people will no doubt disagree. Obviously, it is essential that we piotect the credibility and reputation of Parliament and that we focus our energies on real issues rather than waste time for its own sake in a boring and anarchic way. It is surprising that some hon. Members, who claim to be the most radical, are among those most opposed to change.

The Liberal Democrat motion rightly refers to the Government's systematic erosion of Parliament's role in the consideration of legislation". The most blatant example of that was the way in which the increase in employees' national insurance contributions and the changes to the statutory sick pay regime were bludgeoned through the House before Christmas. As a result of that heavy-handed action, the Labour party broke off normal relations with the Government. By contrast, the Liberal Democrats condemned the Government's actions yet carried on conducting business in the normal way. They complain about Government action, but offer no effective opposition.

Similarly, the Government guillotined the Finance Bill very tightly, allowing for a range of abuses, including slipping in amendments at the last minute under the name of Tory Back Benchers. They manipulated the guillotine to avoid Ministers having to explain tricky matters to the Committee. Tory Members filibustered debates prior to those that would be awkward to the Executive, thereby ensuring that controversial issues were not discussed in Committee, particularly the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel, which was almost not discussed at all.

At the end of that farce, the Liberal Democrat spokesman felt able to tell the House that he broadly approved of the way in which the Committee had proceeded to the guillotine. The views of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) are at variance with the contents of the motion.

Mr. Spearing

Does my hon. Friend agree that the disgraceful way in which the Government used their majority to timetable those measures offers a salutary warning to those who believe that timetabling should be more frequently and routinely used in the House?

Mr. Brown

The lessons to be learnt from the way in which the Finance Bill was treated in Committee this year were not lost on me, of all people in this place, and are conditioning the current discussions. My hon. Friend's warning is well taken. It is not possible for the Opposition somehow to sacrifice their rights and hand over the management of business to the Executive.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brown

Of course I will: how could I possibly resist?

Mr. Beith

Has the hon. Gentleman talked to any of the many groups that watched the passage of the Finance Bill with particular interest because they are affected by it and have to implement it? Is he aware of the extent to which they found that the timetable made it much more feasible for them to deal with hon. Members because they knew when amendments were to be debated? Will he recognise that my comment that the timetable for the Bill had, in general, worked, which I stand by, was qualified only by my assertion that the ability of other groups to vary the operation of the timetable would have improved it further still—a factor which is inherent in the Jopling proposals?

Mr. Brown

I have in front of me what the right hon. Gentleman said in the debate on 20 April 1994. He did not make that latter point, although I appreciate that it is his view. He is a veteran of many Finance Bills. He is right to say that there should be certainty about the timetable so that the outside world can make specialist representations. I know that he shares my view that the best way to deal with the matter is to have a separate Taxes Management Bill dealing with the details of long, omnibus Bills point by point and measure by measure so that experts from outside can talk to us and explain their views.

That does not mean that I yield one inch on the way in which Parliament handles controversial matters such as tax increases or decreases—tax decreases before elections and spectacular increases after elections. Those matters are politically contentious and it is no use suggesting that they can be dealt with by consensus, because they cannot. People have strong views about such matters. It would better serve democracy if we first took expert testimony on finance, home affairs and Department of the Environment measures and proceeded in a less adversarial way.

The Liberals' motion makes some complaints about civil service involvement in political activity. I agree with the points that it makes. It is important that the public service remains independent and uncorrupted. Britain had a strong tradition of independent public service, which prolonged government by a single party has eroded. A letter from Mr. Bob Welsh to the social services inspectorate in the Department of Health states: A continuing flow of positive messages about community care would pay political dividends at both local and national levels". That clearly oversteps the mark for a public servant. Nor do I think that it is proper to use parliamentary draftsmen to draw up copious amendments for Government Back Benchers to table to private Member's legislation, which the Government then pretend they do not oppose in principle.

There is a case for reform, including reconsidering the procedure for Prime Minister's Question Time. The inescapable fact, however, is that the job of being a Member of Parliament will always be demanding and is likely to become more, rather than less, so. No reform of the House will ever get around that fact.

We would also betray our responsibilities to the British people if we ever let Parliament become a part-time institution, relieving the Executive of the burden of scrutiny. I must tell the Liberal Democrats that no amount of neogothic self-righteous whingeing will ever change either of those facts.

4.49 pm
Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that he had taken note of a certain phrase in the opening speech from the Liberal Democrat Benches, in which the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said that he had "relatively few things to say". I also wrote that comment down, and it occurred to me at the time that the hon. Gentleman might well have said that he had relatively few things in his head.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that he does not like the cut and thrust of our proceedings in this House, which has gone on for centuries, and wants to turn this place into a hemicycle to try to dampen everything down. If he sat and watched the proceedings of the United States Congress, a forum which is based very much on that approach, he would find that Members of Congress largely complain about the boring blandness of the Chamber and about the fact that all the real work goes on in Committee. I cannot think of a worse fate for this House than to be consigned to that sort of blandness.

We repeatedly hear from hon. Members such as the hon. Member for North Cornwall of their dislike for political cut and thrust. We should never forget that there are still millions of people around the world who would give their back teeth for the cut and thrust of our debates and for the democracy that we enjoy. I am sorry to say this, but it seems that many hon. Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches—and there are some here today who are distinguished exclusions from what I am about to say—seem to prefer the political actions of a dark night with a stiletto to the cut and thrust that is so much a part of our proceedings.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that as we have an adversarial Chamber, anyone who is elected to the House must decide which side they are on, and that such a decision does not come easily to many Liberal Democrats?

Mr. Jopling

My hon. Friend could not have put it better.

I welcome this debate and the Liberal Democrat motion for one reason: it allows us again to discuss the report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, of which I had the honour to be Chairman. We have not debated the report for two years. I shall come back to that in a moment; first, however, I simply want to say a little more about the motion that we are debating.

When I first read the motion, it seemed to be a rushed job. It was not well drafted and little thought had gone into it. That became clear in my mind when I received a note from my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, to which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House referred. It was a note that my right hon. Friend had written to the hon. Member for North Cornwall in which he says —I have his permission to quote it▀× I am sorry that when you had a word with me on Wednesday evening you did not mention the intention of your party to be arranging the debate. I will not accuse the hon. Gentleman. I cannot believe that—

Mr. Tyler


Mr. Jopling

I shall give way in a moment. I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman did that out of discourtesy or deviousness—I grant him that. All I can say is that that demonstrates that his is a rushed, botched-up motion which should be thrown out on its ear.

Mr. Tyler

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am sure that he will be aware that the date for this debate was offered to the Liberal Democrats only on Wednesday. It was therefore impossible for my hon. Friends and me to indicate to the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, for whom I have a high regard, the intention to debate this issue.

Mr. Jopling

The hon. Gentleman forgets that for many years I was part of the usual channels. Of course, the Liberal Democrats have always known broadly when they would get debates.

Mr. Tyler

That is not true.

Mr. Jopling

Not exactly when, but within a few weeks.

Mr. Tyler


Mr. Burns

The hon. Gentleman did not give way to us.

Mr. Jopling

I will not repeat the points made by my hon. Friends.

In my experience, the Liberal Democrats always know within a few weeks that they are to be offered a half-day debate, and they always have a motion thought out and ready. Perhaps they do not think ahead as they used to.

One part of the motion that demonstrates that it is a botched-up job is the reference to Prime Minister's Question Time. If ever there was a time not to table a motion criticising the format, this is it. Anyone can criticise the format of Prime Minister's Question Time; for many years, it has occupied better minds than those of hon. Members here today and no one has ever been able to come up with a better way of doing things. Let us hope that we can find one. It does not take a genius to criticise the present arrangement for Prime Minister's Question Time. But, given that things are at last—and helpfully, I hope—moving, this seems to me to be the most stupid time at which to criticise the format.

Mr. Dalyell

There was a very different time in the history of Prime Minister's Questions—the time when the Prime Minister of the day would transfer any matter that was not directly relevant to the job of Prime Minister. The absolutely horrendous open question puts a completely different complexion on Prime Minister's Question Time. The two are as different as chalk and cheese.

Mr. Jopling

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who has been in the House marginally longer than I have, will agree that, if we can find a better way of running Prime Minister's Question Time, we should do it. I welcome the initiative of the Procedure Committee, which has gone some way towards that.

Mr. Winnick

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jopling

No, I shall proceed.

Another thing that surprised me about the motion was its attack on Parliament's ability to hold the Executive to account". As the motion says that, some credit should be given to the departmental Select Committees which were set up in 1980. As the House may remember—although my old friend Norman St. John-Stevas claims that he set them up —I undertook all the negotiations for setting up the Select Committees with the then Opposition Chief Whip.

I believe that the Select Committees have dramatically changed the ability of the House to question the Executive. As the House knows, I am a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee so I have some practical experience of this. I was also a member of two Select Committees—the Agriculture Committee and the Science and Technology Committee—during the famous Crossman experiment. I was sorry that they did not survive, but I am, and continue to be, a strong advocate of the Select Committee system.

I also have the advantage of having had to sit on the sharp end of the Select Committees; as a departmental Minister, I was frequently cross-examined very hard by them. They have made a dramatic change to the preparation that Ministers undertake before they face the House. Any Minister who has had to sit in front of a Select Committee and be cross-examined will know that it is something that no previous Ministers before the early 1980s ever had to do.

Mr. Winnick

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who has given way on several occasions. Does he agree that, although the departmental Select Committees undoubtedly do excellent work, the Chamber must be the daily focus when we are sitting of the differences between the political parties, and that Prime Minister's Question Time, whatever its format, is bound to be the subject of intense controversy and the time at which the most controversial subjects are raised? There is no reason why we should apologise for the fact that hon. Members on both sides of the House raise matters that we believe are of the greatest importance, or for the fact that there is some noise. Would not it also be useful if the serious newspapers reported parliamentary proceedings, not simply Prime Minister's Question Time?

Mr. Jopling

I am delighted for the first time in my life publicly to support everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. He and I have been in the House many years. I agree with what he said—indeed, I referred to that point a little earlier when I said that I hoped that we would not move to the bland American experience, which does not match the cut and thrust of our parliamentary proceedings.

It occurred to me that in his arguments about the problems of Parliament in getting facts and information, the hon. Member for North Cornwall ought logically to have advocated a freedom of information Bill. I did not hear him expound that argument, although it seemed to be at the centre of what he was trying to say. He referred to the Pergau affair. I do not want to say too much about it as a member of the Select Committee which is currently examining the matter and preparing a report. The hon. Gentleman referred to a temporary entanglement. I make the point to him that the moment that Ministers discovered that there was a temporary entanglement, strenuous and in some ways rather harsh steps were taken to get rid of it, which reflected nothing but credit on the Government. It was clear that an entanglement had been arrived at which ought not to have happened.

Sir Harold Walker (Doncaster, Central)

The right hon. Gentleman has provoked me with his references to freedom of information and the work of the Committee to which he belongs. Only today, I listened to a discussion on the radio about a prison which is due to open in my constituency. All kinds of revelations are common knowledge in the United States and these reports have been published about the prison, but the Home Office refuses to divulge in this country any of the information that is available to the public in the United States. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will have a look at that example.

Mr. Jopling

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman's local newspapers will have heard what he has said. I cannot comment on it. I have no doubt that his local radio and television stations will at this moment be agog and will make sure that his intervention is recorded in the 6 o'clock news.

Let me make just a few comments about the report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House. First, history: a unanimous report was published by a Committee representing the three principal parties. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) was a most distinguished member of that Committee. There was a debate in the House before the last election in which broad support was expressed for the unanimous recommendation.

Shortly after the election, an early-day motion was signed by 215 Members. I think that I speak reasonably accurately when I say that 120 of them or thereabouts were Opposition Members. We had another debate in July 1992. The current Leader of the House accepted about 85 per cent. of what the Committee had recommended. That was the high water point. Since then, the report has made little progress. I think that everyone in the House knows that the block to its progress comes from a small number of Members. I think that the Opposition Whips Office is one of those areas in which there is a small redoubt of opposition to the report. I shall not say any more about that because I really do not want to muddy the waters at this stage.

Since our debate in the summer of 1992, the Government could easily have ramrodded the findings of the report through the House. I know from being around the House during the past two years that there is broad support for the recommendations right across the House. There is no week in the House when I do not have three or four Members from each side asking me, "When will the recommendations of your Committee be accepted by the House?"

The Government could perfectly well have ramrodded the report through, but they have not done so. Because they have not done so, they have been subjected to the short-term criticism to which the hon. Member for North Cornwall treated us today. I hope that the Government will stick to the policies that the Leader of the House expounded today. My right hon. Friend can be perfectly sure that, if he had ramrodded the proposals through the House, the same Liberal Democrat Members would have talked about a travesty of democracy. We know their tactics. That is what they would have done.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will know that during the past two years I have used whatever influence I have to do my utmost to prevent the Government from ramrodding the proposals through the House. I have consistently appealed to my right hon. Friend privately not to ramrod them through. I am sure that that has been right.

Like a few other people here, I was a Member of the House during the Crossman experiment that began when Richard Crossman was Leader of the House from 1966. The proposals that Richard Crossman made never had a broad consensus. As a result, they were made to be unworkable. The Select Committee on Sittings of the House always knew that. I think that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will bear me out when I say that often during the deliberations of that Select Committee, we discussed the Crossman experience and agreed that we should go for a broad consensus if we wanted the recommendations to stick. Of course, one can never get unanimity. I have forgotten which member of the Committee referred to the need for unanimity. I think that it was the Liberal Chief Whip. He rightly made the point that one could never could get unanimity on such matters. However, one has to get as close to unanimity as possible. It is essential to get that broad support.

Mr. Dalyell

Just to be fair, as the late Dick Crossman's Parliamentary Private Secretary, may I remind the right hon. Gentleman that distinguished Members on both sides of the House said one thing and then changed their minds? If the shade of lain Macleod were here, he would confess to that.

Mr. Jopling

I have no recollection, because I was an extremely junior Member in those days, of whether that was true of the discussions and agreements that took place before the proposals were introduced. I do know, however, that right across the Opposition Back Benches there was a dislike of the proposals—although I accept that those on the Front Bench accepted it.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

Will my right hon. Friend allow me to intervene?

Mr. Jopling

This must be the last time that I give way.

Sir Dudley Smith

I intervene as one of the less distinguished people who were here at that time—as opposed to the powers that be, to whom the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) referred. The proposal was disliked by Members of all parties. The morning sittings failed because people on both sides of the House did not turn up and do their job.

Mr. Jopling

That may well be right. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment, but I shall not give way any more; I have given way a great deal and I must finish.

The Select Committee's report was balanced. We sought to balance the interests of Government and Opposition and I still believe that the recommendations did that. I have never fully understood why a few hon. Members oppose the proposals. I think that the main opposition is to the timetabling of Bills, but I remind the House that the Select Committee was not specific about that. The Select Committee said that we ought to discuss further how timetabling should be introduced and referred to the Select Committee on Procedure report of 1986.

If the Opposition do not like timetabling, let us not forget that the Government could implement the rest of the report's recommendations perfectly well without it, because they already have huge powers to introduce timetabling if they so desire. In the days when I was Chief Whip, I was very anxious that the Government should never exceed Michael Foot's famous record for timetabling—I think it was five timetable motions in a day. In the early 1980s, I tried my best to ensure that the Government never exceeded that record for guillotines. Since then, there have been many of them and no doubt the House is moving, to a much greater extent, towards accepting them. But timetabling of Bills could be left out, as the Government would still have all those powers.

Leaving aside some of the shortcomings of this debate, I welcome the opportunity to give a push to some of the report's recommendations. The House has demonstrated considerable patience by trying to wait for a move towards a broad consensus and I hope that that moment has now arrived. I only hope that the present talks will make all our patience entirely worth while.

5.11 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I have frequently heard the Labour Whips' Office referred to by colourful names but redoubt is not one of them. If I appear to be picking up on some of the supposed objections to some aspects of our parliamentary procedure, I hope that I shall be acquitted of doing so on behalf of those venerable ladies and gentlemen, most of whom I get on with very well, but very few of whom would suggest that I spoke on their behalf.

The procedure of the House of Commons is an esoteric subject, on which Members frequently hold forth when they have astonishingly little knowledge of how it actually works. Recently, I was honoured to be asked to go to Kenya to talk about parliamentary procedure. The Clerk of one of our Commonwealth Parliaments was holding forth at great length, partly because he had toothache, about the need for Members of Parliament to understand procedure. He said that it should not be possible for people to become Members of Parliament unless they understood it. I was asked to comment and said that I was sure that that ought to be the way, but that it would rule out 50 per cent. of the House of Commons and a very distinguished gentleman added, "Two thirds."

The way in which we order our business is fundamental to the way in which we take important political decisions. I have become increasingly disturbed by the suggestion that the House can somehow be organised as if it were a pea factory, with people pushing in inputs at one end, running a straightforward manufacturing line through and producing a nice, evenly balanced and beautifully prepared result at the other. That is not the way that it should work. We are here to represent our constituents, who have varied views and real interests. I am concerned that a consensus appears to be developing that will limit the powers of Back-Bench Members to express those views openly and with fervour.

Many of my hon. Friends sitting on these Benches today, let alone those on the Conservative Benches, could be numbered as part of the awkward squad. My very good hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has frequently used the procedures of the House to put over important points that both Front Benches were in danger of glossing over. Therefore, it behoves those of us who have been here a long time and have watched the development of various changes in procedure to look closely at what such changes entail.

I am strongly opposed to the timetabling of Bills. Frankly, that is not because I do not want to go home early. I would be happy to go home at a reasonable hour every night, but I understand that the work of Members of Parliament is becoming even more essential because of the powers that the Executive are taking every day. The Government have set out to hide vast areas of information. They have changed the business of the civil service, so that there are an increasing number of agencies, which are made up of civil servants but are not answerable to the House of Commons in the way that they once were.

Hansard, which is absolutely essential to many of our constituents because of the information that it contains, increasingly does not have the routine answers—in detailed statistical and political terms—that enable people outside this place to know what the Government are doing in every sphere. The habit of sloughing off responsibility to executives of "next steps" agencies is increasing and can only make it more difficult for Members of Parliament to represent their constituents properly, and that should concern us very much.

Any move that either puts the provision of information a step further away or arranges the procedures of the House in such a way that only limited time can be given to the examination of a Bill can only be a derogation of power from this Chamber and should be considered very carefully.

I was here at the time of the Crossman experiment and the theory behind it was sensible. I listen to Members who say that we should have a proper working day and should organise ourselves completely differently. When do they deal with their correspondence? Who are these Members who are so free of constituency duties that they do not need the mornings to reply to letters from constituents and follow up case work? When do they sit on Committees? Do they not sit on any Committee? Do they never turn up for work on any of the European Standing Committees? Frankly, if that is the case, their advice is not much help.

There have been some useful modifications to our procedure. The European Standing Committees are a sensible development. If they do not work as well as they should, Members of this House must answer for it. If more Members used their right to turn up at European Committees and to ask the Minister detailed, factual questions for an hour, they would get far more information about what was happening to European legislation. They choose not to exercise that power, but that does not mean that it does not exist.

I want the Leader of the House seriously to consider a means of developing the powers of the European Standing Committees so that they have the right not only to study legislation but to amend what is brought before them and to ensure that it is debated on the Floor of the House. At present, it is entirely within the aegis of the Chairman of a Committee to accept a manuscript amendment. There is no guarantee that those amendments will be debated on the Floor of the House. Most simply go through the Chamber virtually on the nod because there is no procedure to consider them carefully. We ought to be able to give them that consideration. The Select Committees, which already have the power to send for people and papers, should have increasing powers, not merely to use the information properly and produce a report but to take detailed information about specific legislation and to debate that here.

My experience of any Government has taught me that they do not necessarily welcome careful and detailed scrutiny of their proposed legislation. Hon. Members who are so keen on altering the procedure might find that their views are slightly different when they are on the other side of the Chamber If the present Government had had that kind of support system, they might not have got themselves into the bizarre craziness of the poll tax fiasco and they might have had a rather better response to some of their other more disastrous bits of legislation.

For example, one may look at what the Select Committee on Transport did in relation to the Railways Bill. Much of the detailed and factual examination of the effects of privatisation should have made the Government pause, and not just because of the political implications. Many of the things that we warned about are now coming about and the Government will pay the price. In political terms, that does not cause me any great upset, but in reality it is a classic example of the folie de grandeur with which the Government went ahead, irrespective of the views of an all-party Committee that had taken detailed and important information.

Lots of hon. Members want to talk about the matter, and it was only because I felt that some of the issues were going by default that I wanted to contribute to the debate. I am happy to take part in debates in the Chamber in the morning, but it will mean that the work that I do now in my office will be done at some other time. People do not disappear because I do not answer their letters in the morning. Cases do not get simpler because I am elsewhere debating a subject.

The real problems for Parliament are the lack of accurate information about what it does and the refusal of the media to regard us as anything except a series of amusing sketches. Someone looking back to has happened at the present time may regard it as being of some moment that the political pages of our major broadsheets considered the future and past of a couple of beautiful guide dogs—of whom I am very fond—to be of more importance than the debate which took place on the Floor of the House last week.

I am increasingly concerned that both the Leader of the House—who I believe is genuinely interested in the subject and anxious to do something about it—and the Shadow Leader may reach agreements that may be convenient for both Front Benches, but which undervalue the rights of Back Benchers. That is happening all the time. When I first came here, if an hon. Member wanted to propose a ten-minute Bill, it was up to him what time he got up, and he went and queued like anybody else. Now, he has to have the agreement of the Whips. That is a little erosion, and arrangements between the two Front Benches mean that there is a movement away from the rights of Back Benchers.

When I first came here, there were a number of rights, which have since been quietly eroded by agreement between the two powerful Front Benches. That way lies perdition. People have been awkward in the name of democracy in British Parliaments since the 1600s. Those who give up their rights will be extremely sorry, whether they give them up under the banner of Maastricht or under the banner of a careful arrangement of parliamentary timetabling. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech and the freedom of Back Benchers to be damned awkward is what Parliament is all about.

5.25 pm
Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

I spent 14 years on the Back Benches doing everything I could to exploit, use and—some would say—sometimes misuse the so-called anachronistic procedures of the House. I spent the past 14 months in the House doing everything I could to ensure that those procedures, without any truck from a Back Bencher, were overwhelmed by the majesty of the Front Bench.

The speeches by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) effectively encapsulate the main debate about the reform of procedure, and they both made legitimate speeches and arguments. There is no doubt that there is a case for reform in the late 20th century. Many new hon. Members have come to the House during the past five or 10 years, and there are young hon. Members and many more lady hon. Members with families who rightly want to consider the case for the modern way of doing things with more "sensible" hours.

Equally, the hon. Lady's point about the need to be wary before we plunge down the road of reform is equally important. I have been both poacher and gamekeeper and I suppose that, for the next few years, I shall be a poacher with an understanding of gamekeeping. There will be occasions when hon. Members who do not form part of a majority in the Lobby may rue the day when they throw away some of the seemingly arcane procedures.

Anybody who ever wanted a lecture on that subject had only to consult the late Bob Cryer when he was alive. He was able to achieve many things for himself and his constituency through his use of so-called arcane and anachronistic procedures.

There was an occasion in the mid-1980s when my constituency was faced with the possibility of receiving nuclear waste. There were three other hon. Members who faced the same possibility—one was the Government's Chief Whip, one was the junior Home Office Minister and the other was the present Attorney-General. I was the only Back-Bench Member, and I concluded that it might just be possible that those who had the Front Bench privilege might somehow be able to persuade the Secretary of State for the Environment that perhaps their constituencies should not receive nuclear waste. I concluded that I perhaps might draw the short straw and, for a year or two, I used and misused the procedures of the House, and some accused me of abusing them. I make no apology for having done that.

Liberal Democrat Members who describe the procedures of the House, and the House of Commons in general, as being held in "public contempt" should perhaps have rephrased the first line in the motion. What they perhaps meant to say in the first line was that this House notes the increasing public contempt for politicians, and not Parliament. I do not believe that there is any more contempt for Parliament today than there was 10 or 20 years ago. I am prepared to concede that there is an increasing contempt for politicians, but that is a different issue.

That is why the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich was right to remind us of what may happen. In fairness, I think that there is a general majority in the House in favour of going down the road of parliamentary reform, and that is why the Liberal Democrat motion is not the appropriate motion to pass. If we are to go down that road, the document that my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and his Select Committee produced some three years ago ought to be the reference point.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) may have done the House a service in allowing my right hon. Friend to reiterate the work that has already been done and, to that extent, today's debate may have been worth while. It has also provided an opportunity for the House to be reminded and warned by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich that individual Back Benchers do have—if they choose to study "Erskine May", precedent and the Standing Orders of the House—many protections. I have watched, from both the Back Benches and the Front Bench, hon. Members successfully defend the interests of their constituents through the use of many of the arcane procedures that the Liberal Democrats might wish to tip away.

Mr. Spearing


Mr. Brown

I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has more experience in proving that point than anybody in the House.

Mr. Spearing

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the word arcane is sometimes used in complete ignorance? For instance, the Question that I think Mr. Deputy Speaker will put at the end of this debate is that "the original words stand part of the Question". But without that reform, which was made in the early 1970s by the Procedure Committee of which I had the honour to be a member, no minority could vote on its own words. That is a first-rate example of what appears to be arcane, but is fundamentally democratic.

Mr. Brown

I agree absolutely. I am glad to note that it was a Conservative Government—my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale was involved in the process—who conceded to that perfectly legitimate request.

I accept that minorities have rights in the House and that minority parties take a great interest in what may happen whenever reforms are proposed by the two major parties. In the past 14 years, I have been a minority of one on more than one occasion—for example, when my constituency was the possible recipient of nuclear waste.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who took issue with the Liberal motion, which calls for an urgent and comprehensive reform of Parliament, including changes to the format of Prime Minister's Question Time. We hon. Members have it in our power to reform Prime Minister's Question Time, regardless of anyone else.

I have always attempted, with the aid of the Table Office, to table questions to the Prime Minister on subjects that I want to raise. I will table a question tomorrow, and until my name eventually hits the Order Paper, to ask the Prime Minister when he intends to carry out the commitment he gave at the Conservative party conference in 1992 to abolish the county of Humberside. I will put that question down on the Order Paper, without any suggestion from the Table Office that it should be transferred to the Secretary of State for the Environment.

When the Prime Minister comes to the House on the day when I am lucky in the ballot for Prime Minister's questions, he will know what I want to ask and he will be able to give the answer. I will then have a second bite at the cherry. If any other hon. Members who are concerned about local government reform in Humberside want to express an opinion, we could have a mini-debate, as we used to do.

Every hon. Member should appreciate how much more effective he or she could be in reforming the procedures of the House by tabling specific questions. It has always amazed me, both from the perspective of the Back Benches and the Front Bench, how few hon. Members, unlike those of 30 years ago, take the opportunity to table a specific question.

Perhaps I should remind the House why hon. Members have opted for the open question. In the 1970s, Harold Wilson and, even more notably, Jim Callaghan, insisted on transferring questions that they felt could be legitimately answered by Departments of State. That is why we invented the open question.

When I came to the House in 1979, I went to the Table Office to table my first parliamentary question. I asked why I had to table a question about the Prime Minister's engagements. The Clerk replied, "You will be interested to know, Mr. Brown, that the new Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, has indicated that so long as your question is in order for the Government, if you wish to ask your question of her, she will answer it." I asked the Clerk whether that meant I could table a question on inflation, trade union laws or whatever and he replied that the Prime Minister had intimated to the Table Office that that was so.

We could reach an agreement between all the parties that the Prime Minister should not transfer any question that the Table Office deemed acceptable for answer by a representative member of the Government. If hon. Members wanted to table that question to the Prime Minister, Back Benchers could, overnight, return to the so-called golden age of Prime Minister's Question Time, when mini-debates were held.

I suspect, however, that if one reads the exchanges at Prime Minister's Question Times in the 1950s and 1960s without the benefit of rose-tinted spectacles, they will appear as much of a bear garden as some might say today's Prime Minister's Question Time has become, It will always be so, because, as hon. Members have already said, this is a debating Chamber. This is where we expect the cut and thrust. The Liberal party is somewhat naive—

Mr. Burns


Mr. Brown

I note what my hon. Friend says.

The Liberal party is naive to have a discussion based on an airy-fairy notion that the public are fed up with the cut and thrust of debate. Members of the Liberal party are only too happy to go in for the cut and thrust of debate on the doorstep, when they say all sorts of things that may or may not be true of their political opponents, when it comes to trying to win by-elections. I make no complaint about that; it is political life. When politicians are fighting on the doorstep a by-election, county council elections or European elections, it is perfectly right for them, in a democratic society, to choose to use whatever tactic they think will most advance their cause. It is the same in here as it is out there; that is the richness of our democracy.

Notwithstanding the warnings of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, perhaps there is a case for making some reforms to our procedures now. After all, we spent a lot of time three years ago commissioning my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and his colleagues to study some of our procedures. We should tap into the mood that appears to exist across the Chamber in favour of making some reforms. There is no doubt that the House and hon. Members of today are different types from those of 30 years ago.

We must recognise that there is a mood in the House for some reform of procedures. We should not accept the terms of the Liberal motion, however, but take the Jopling report as our reference point. Whether we are talking about an individual Conservative or Opposition Back Bencher or a Conservative or Opposition Government, the arcane procedures—calls for the reform of which get cheap claps from our constituents—are the very procedures that sometimes guarantee us, as individual Members, our greatest powers.

5.36 pm
Mr, John Garrett (Norwich, South)

In practice, our Parliament exists to provide the members of a Government and to scrutinise their proposals and their actions to the extent that that Government will allow. That is the problem. It is absolutely clear that that is no longer good enough. Our system of the combination of powers—having Ministers drawn from the legislature—always carries with it the danger of an ineffective Parliament. The Government have exploited that to the full.

In the course of studying Parliament for some years, I have carried out research into parliamentary reform and I have interviewed hon. Members and Officers of the House. I was surprised at the lack of demand for reform and the absence of imagination as to what our Parliament could be. In fact, our Parliament could be made much more effective quite easily, without any procedural revolution.

Two steps are necessary above all else. First, more powers should be given to the Speaker, because the independence of the Speaker is greatly under-exploited. Secondly, more powers and resources should be given to Select and Standing Committees.

The central problem is the overweening power of the Government over Parliament, which diminishes our democratic accountability. Our system is extraordinarily deficient in defending citizens' rights. Indeed, we have no rights which are not in the gift of Government to award or take away. As a consequence of that, Britain has been found guilty of infringing human rights by the European Court of Human Rights more often than any other country that is a signatory to the convention on human rights. In 27 cases, we have been required by the European Court to provide remedies to our citizens. It is clear that Britain should enact the European convention in our own domestic legislation so that British citizens would have direct redress through our courts instead of suffering the protracted processes of the European Court.

We devote the greatest part of our time—about a third—to legislation, yet badly drafted and defective legislation is rushed through the House. Examples are the Football Spectators Bill, the Dangerous Dogs Bill, the poll tax legislation and the Child Support Act 1991. The Government will not allow adequate time or resources for expert consideration. The special Bill procedure, which would allow Standing Committees to take evidence from witnesses on the purposes and likely effect of a Bill, has been used four times in 15 years and has not been used since 1984. Yet when it was used, it was pronounced a resounding success both by the Opposition and by Ministers subject to cross-examination under the procedure.

Every year, we examine 2,500 pages of primary legislation, yet some 10,000 pages of secondary legislation are pushed through the House with little discussion and no scope for amendment. Much of it is important, filling in the detail of primary legislation or determining such crucial issues as social security entitlements.

Mr. Dalyell

Hon. Members on the controversial Standing Committee on Scottish local government reform, which sat for 177 hours, pleaded courteously and seriously that the witness procedure be brought into operation at the first opportunity, but our wish was absolutely denied. It was not for want of trying.

Mr. Garrett

I am sure that it was not for want of trying. When the Standing Committee on the highly complex Companies Bill voted for the special Bill procedure to be used, the Government refused.

Avoiding parliamentary authorisation all together, the Government have used the royal prerogative ruthlessly—in effect, government by proclamation—to enable the United States to bomb Libya from places in Britain to declare the Gulf War to authorise jury vetting and telephone tapping to regulate the civil service and to ban unions at GCHQ.

The Government use a derivative of the royal prerogative—Crown immunity—to enable Departments to avoid the requirements of such protective statutes as health and safety legislation, as they affect Departments. I cannot see the justification for continuing the royal prerogative, because everything covered by it could easily be set before us properly in primary legislation.

We have inadequate arrangements for pre-legislative consideration and no post-legislative scrutiny. When an Act becomes unworkable, no arrangements exist for the Standing Committee that examined it in the first place to examine its implementation and call Ministers to account.

The Government have also been ruthless in their use of the guillotine, which was used six times between 1950 and 1960, and 43 times between 1979 and 1990. In that area of legislation, new powers should be given to the Speaker. For example, the Speaker should deem any Bill that infringes citizens' rights to require exceptionally careful and lengthy examination with, for instance, evidence-taking sessions by a Standing Committee or the use of a qualifying majority. The Speaker should also determine the timetabling of Bills so that adequate time is given for discussing important or controversial legislation.

Parliament's investigatory functions should be enhanced. It is worth noting that the relationship of Government, civil servants and Ministers to parliamentary Committees is governed by the Osmotherly rules, "Questions of Procedure for Ministers" and the Armstrong memorandum, none of which have any statutory force or have been approved by the House. They are simply codes of practice which the Government drop on Select Committees and attempt to enforce.

Since their reform in 1979, Select Committees have been successful, but their work is hopelessly superficial and partial and they do not fulfil their terms of reference. They are established to examine policy, spending and administration, but concentrate exclusively on policy. They rarely look at Departments' management or spending, mainly because they cannot marshall the expertise or get expert staff to examine the details. A staff of two or three is clearly inadequate for a Select Committee to examine Departments' management and spending, particularly now that the machinery of Government has become so complex and has far outstripped the machinery of Parliament.

A typical Select Committee was originally set up to examine the policy, spending and management of one or two Departments. Now, a typical Select Committee is faced with examining one or two ministerial headquarters; five to 10 agencies; several score quangos; and innumerable contracts with private contractors. They cannot hope to cope with the explosion of information.

As in so many areas, we get Select Committees, which do a reasonable job within their limits, on the cheap. All the Select Committees cost some £3 million a year, of which £2 million is for printing reports. Much more investment must be made in Select Committees if they are to call Ministers to account effectively. They need expert staff capable of analysing the work of Departments, quangos and agencies, and their management and spending programmes. Those skills should be provided by a new research department in the House, staffed by accountants, analysts and specialists. There should also be a department of the Opposition, capable of providing civil service skills to Opposition Members on Standing Committees.

The growth of the flow of information from Government agencies and what I have called elsewhere the "dismemberment" of Government—the turning of Government from a unified civil service to a constellation of different agencies—has been matched by no growth whatever in Select Committees' analytical skills. I hope that a current issue in that area will be raised this week on the Floor of the House. I proposed to the Treasury and Civil Service Sub-Committee that it should carry out a survey on civil servants' attitudes. It is conducting a study of the future of the civil service, but it is not enough simply to examine the great and the good—Ministers, experts and trade union leaders. It is also important to find out how that revolution in government affects ordinary civil servants.

I made the proposal, first, because it is necessary and, secondly, because I wanted to study the principle that Select Committees have the right to a research budget. To my surprise, the Committee accepted the proposal, yet the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has refused point blank to allow it to be carried out. Not only is that a breach of privilege but he should be censured for it. Although that Committee can summon 500 civil servants to give oral evidence whenever it wants, the Chancellor of the Duchy refuses to allow it to write to 500 civil servants. I hope that we shall have a debate and censure the Chancellor of the Duchy on that subject.

There are many other examples of the Government's authoritarian, reactionary and anachronistic attitude to Parliament, such as the facilities accorded to Members, the unfriendliness of Parliament to visitors and our constituents, and Parliament's supine attitude in defence of its rights. It is time for a thorough review of the Parliament's role, and I offer a few headings under which such a review could be carried out.

Contrary to constitutional theory, there are some important functions in which Parliament should have an independent locus and standing, neither conferred by the monarch nor in the gift of Government. First, all the expenditure authorised by Parliament should be audited. At present, that is not allowed. Secondly, our citizens should be educated in parliamentary democracy. We spend virtually nothing on that aspect of our work. Thirdly, we should improve the quality and intelligibility of legislation. That is a matter for Parliament, not the Government, and the Speaker should ensure that legislation is examined for workability and intelligibility. Fourthly, we should protect and advance civil rights. Parliament has a duty to advance civil rights. Fifthly, we should enact and supervise freedom of information and, sixthly, we should oversee the responsible transfer of authority to the European Parliament. That is happening anyway and it should be done properly.

Those demands are not great. If they are to be implemented, we need a progressive Leader of the House who fulfils his terms of reference. Let me remind the Leader of the House of his terms of reference in the "Civil Service List": to uphold the rights and privileges of the House as a whole". In my time, two Leaders of the House have attempted seriously to push forward parliamentary reform—Richard Crossman and Lord St. John of Fawsley. Since the time of Lord St. John of Fawsley, the Leader of the House—I am sorry to say it, because the right hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) is an amiable enough person—has been transformed from someone whose business is to defend the rights and privileges of the House to someone who simply acts as the Cabinet's major-domo.

Mr. Tony Banks

For the time being.

Mr. Garrett

For the time being. I hope that we get a better one.

That is a depressing conclusion. I should have preferred the Leader of the House, instead of spending the first third of his speech being rude to the Liberals or whoever in that silly, schoolboyish way, to devote his attention to what the House of Commons is for and how its rights could be established and entrenched.

5.50 pm
Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)

What a difference an hour makes. An hour ago, the serried ranks of the Liberal Democrats were present for their motion, all sitting "doughnutting" for the television cameras that they knew would be on them. Now the rag-tag and bobtail of the Liberal Democrats remain. Their opening spokesman does not even do them the courtesy of being here to listen to the debate in time for the closing speeches.

This is an issue of great importance to the House of Commons and it is very much an issue which, as many previous contributors to the debate said, can be tackled only through the agreement of the House of Commons and not the imposition of the Executive.

The platitudinous motion, which could have been written on the back of an envelope in the Cock and Bull public house simply to try to appeal to as many people as possible, does not do a service to the House or further the debate. The opening speech did not add much to our sum of knowledge of the subject, except for the extremely interesting admission that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) extracted from the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) who admitted that the public's perception of the Liberal Democrats as politicians was that they were lazy and not especially interested in this place. I think that the House of Commons deserves better than that, although I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East for at least getting some honesty out of the Liberal Democrats.

The motion begins with the words: That this House notes the increasing public contempt for Parliament". That is trite and when, as an individual, one asks one's constituents about Parliament, one does not receive that answer. Yes, one does receive answers that Prime Minister's Question Time and other big House of Commons occasions may be too rowdy, although people certainly concentrate on watching and listening to them on television and radio because they find them informative, interesting and entertaining. That cannot be taken away, as the figures clearly show it.

I would argue that the contempt that people feel is not for the work that goes on in this Chamber or in the Standing Committees and Select Committees, or for the work that we all do as individual hon. Members on our constituency cases, which was so graphically described by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) in her argument about the hours that we should work. The contempt is at the sharp end of politics which spills over into the House, but which people come up against on the streets and in our constituencies at election time. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but most people respect and admire the campaigning tactics of the Labour party and the Conservative party but utterly reject the campaigning tactics of the Liberal Democrats. They will reject the use of their leaflets. We have seen the handbooks that have leaked into the press, all of which contribute to the contempt of Parliament, telling the Liberal Democrats to jump on to a bandwagon when they know the result so that they can claim the credit when the decision has been taken, and to falsify the opinion polls, to cause confusion in the minds of the electorate as to who may be the main challenger, so that it will benefit the Liberal Democrats. All members of the Labour party and the Conservative party know those tactics. The sad fact of life is that, although it is far divorced from the work in the House, those tactics enhance and increase the contempt for politicians as a profession and for the House of Commons.

Bold statements were made today about there not being enough scrutiny. One of the specific examples given by the hon. Member for North Cornwall was that there was not enough scrutiny in the Committees upstairs. I do not know how many Committees the hon. Gentleman has served on in the past two years when he has been a Member of the House, but I have served on a number of Committees in the past seven years and I have witnessed the line-by-line examination of the Bills that come before us. I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats made a positive complaint about the scrutiny that takes place in those Standing Committees.

I take as an example the recent Standing Committee on the Intelligence Services Bill. That important issue was taken upstairs in Committee for vigorous examination before returning to the Floor of the House. One would expect the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) to be an expert on that subject as GCHQ is in his constituency. The people of Cheltenham—and also the hon. Member for North Cornwall, if he had done some research before he made that criticism—might be surprised to learn that the hon. Member for Cheltenham did not turn up to all the sittings of that Committee although it was not only a constituency issue, but, according to the hon. Member for North Cornwall, an important area in which we must scrutinise the legislation passing through the House and where the House is failing, according to the hon. Gentleman, because it is not taken seriously enough.

If one wishes to make criticisms of procedures in the House—and heaven knows, criticisms can be made—one should at least do it when one's party is whiter than white and squeaky clean. It does no good to the party of the hon. Member for North Cornwall to try to bring the House into disrepute by making accusations of that nature when many hon. Members from all political parties spend a great deal of time in Standing Committees, monitoring and examining the legislation that passes through Parliament.

I was also interested to hear several criticisms about the oral question system in the House. I shall take one example, which my Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) mentioned. Specific criticism was made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall about Ministers replying to questions by saying that they would write to the questioner giving greater details as an answer to the question. That is fine if it will increase the knowledge and information that the hon. Gentleman or Lady who has asked the question requires. Moreover, the hon. Member for North Cornwall is quite wrong to criticise that as a failure of the questioning system when exactly that stance was taken this afternoon in the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham from the hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend who was answering questions this afternoon, the name of whose constituency I cannot remember.

Mr. Kirkwood


Mr. Burns

If it is all right for the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) to do it, it is reasonable for Ministers to do the same thing when they feel that it would enhance the knowledge that they can impart to a colleague.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) will forgive me if I say that while I congratulate him and his colleagues on their report, I wish to make several arguments on the subject.

The recommendation to complete the sitting days Monday to Thursday by 10 o'clock and Fridays by 2.30 pm is, in many ways, attractive and appealing. We would not have the ridiculous situation, which even Members who entered the House after 1987 have had to go through, of being here until 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock, 5 o'clock or even later in the morning. Obviously, no one in their right mind can think straight and do a decent job of work at those hours on top of all the work that they have done in the morning and afternoon of what may be the preceding day but is still the same parliamentary day. However, I repeat the caution issued by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown): if our sitting hours are restricted, the powers of the Executive are increased.

Although I was not a Member of Parliament at the time, I worked here between 1975 and 1979, when the Labour Government had a small majority and then lost it. The House was kept sitting for long hours, night after night. That may have been a crashing bore for hon. Members on both sides of the House—regrettably, it may even have caused some health problems—but it gave Back Benchers and the Opposition of the day more powers to seek to limit and control the Executive.

That may be an arcane way of operating the procedures of the House, but I do not consider it wise to jump on the bandwagon of automatically restricting the hours of the House to set times that are unrealistically short. That would limit the powers of Back Benchers—the members of the awkward squad about whom we heard in earlier speeches today—and of the Opposition.

Mr. Tony Banks

One aspect of the Parliament to which the hon. Gentleman referred was the narrowness of the then Government's majority. Indeed, in a sense they were not a majority Government. In such circumstances, the Back Bencher's power becomes far greater. In subsequent Parliaments, with a Government majority of more than 100, it was obviously far more difficult for the Opposition to catch all Conservative Members out at the same massage parlour on the same night. The power of the Back Bencher is, in a sense, commensurate with the size of the Government's majority.

Mr. Burns

The hon. Gentleman is right, up to a point. Clearly, it would rarely be possible to whittle away a large Government majority; but if the system and the sitting hours are used to demoralise the Government of the day and their Back Benchers and to argue constantly against whatever is the current issue, it is potentially easier to persuade the Government to backtrack or amend legislation. If we operate in a fixed, rigid straitjacket, the Government will know that at 10 pm or at 2.30 pm that will be it: they will have their legislation.

I merely caution hon. Members to think carefully. I fear that I shall be an old man before it happens, but at some point—probably just before my retirement—we shall have a non-Conservative Government. The torch of opposition will be passed to my younger colleagues, with whom I shall have grown up; I may not have had the experience of opposition. They will feel frustrated if they are put in a straitjacket and prevented from opposing because they have been deprived of the time in which to harry the Government in the traditional way.

Mr. Garrett

In two consecutive sentences of an increasingly fatuous speech, the hon. Gentleman said both that the smallness of a majority enabled Government Back Benchers to exercise more power and that they were demoralised. Which was it?

Mr. Burns

I said that if the Opposition harried the Government, and kept it up night after night, Government and Back Benchers might become demoralised by the sheer physical fatigue of the exercise and the increased time available to Opposition Members to argue their case for change. The Government might then backtrack or amend legislation. I did not say that that would definitely happen, but it is a possibility that would not exist if the Government of the day knew that at 10 pm, for instance, the business must end and a Bill or a Report stage would be secure.

I certainly believe that the time came many years ago for us to amend the early-day motion system radically. It is a gross abuse, and a ridiculous, pathetic opportunity for parliamentary graffiti. Some absurd motions have clearly been tabled for the benefit of the "Wapping Times", the "Brentwood Gazette" or whatever the Member of Parliament's local paper may be. We should get a grip: the system is a waste of time and money which genuinely misleads the public. Special interest lobbying groups tell them, "Write to your Member of Parliament: get him to vote for this motion, or sign that motion—we can change the world by ensuring that it is passed by the House of Commons."

As we all know, most of these ridiculous motions never see the light of day on the Floor of the House. Some of those prayed against by the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats reach the Floor of the House or are dealt with in Committee: that, indeed, is what the procedure should be for. The others, however, are a waste of time. The system should be changed as quickly as possible, to save time and money and to lower the expectations of people outside who assume that because the motions are on the Order Paper of the House of Commons they are much more important than they are. I hope that the issue will be re-examined soon by my right hon. Friend and by the relevant Committee.

I welcome the reference in the report to restricting ways and means debates to 45 minutes. The late Bob Cryer was a past master in this regard, rightly using the procedure to highlight what he perceived as injustices or other faults in legislation, but open-ended ways and means debates were potentially vulnerable to abuse. The implementation of the recommendation for reform will benefit the workings of the House.

Paragraph 98 of the report, which deals with proxy voting, recommends that the Speaker and representatives of all parties should convene a conference with a view to making recommendations on this matter. Again, I urge caution. Part of the nature of the Chamber is that we must enter the Aye and No Lobbies through what some may consider archaic procedures. After eight minutes, the doors are locked and they are not unlocked until the end of the vote. We cannot have a system—I accept that the recommendation does not suggest such a system, but it has been suggested—enabling hon. Members to press a button to vote. There are only 437 places in the Chamber, and it does not possess the "desk" system that many other legislatures have.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East has suggested pressing buttons in the Lobby walls. I do not think that that would work; it does not get round the system of proxy votes. If we are to vote here, all who wish to vote should be present to cast their votes. The 1979 general election was triggered by the fact that one Labour Member was unable to come to the House to vote; due to illness, he had to stay up in Yorkshire. Paradoxically, I believe, a late Member of Parliament who represented Fermanagh and South Tyrone came over as a guest of the Labour Whips to abstain in person—much to the shock of the Labour Whips who, having flown him over, had apparently locked him in the Strangers Bar with plenty of light refreshment to keep him happy. It would take away a great deal from the nature of the Chamber and the way in which we do our business if we were to introduce a form of proxy vote.

Mr. Jopling

I am interested in what my hon. Friend says as I did a little research into the matter some years ago. We know that the average large Division in this House takes about 12 minutes. I inquired into the amount of time it takes for a Division in the United States, which has electronic voting. I discovered that even with that system a Division takes no less time. In addition, our system of voting gives Back Benchers a tremendous opportunity to buttonhole and cross-examine, on the move, members of the Executive.

Mr. Burns

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and I whole-heartedly agree with him, especially on his latter point. As he says, our system gives us a golden opportunity to speak to Ministers and even the Prime Minister, which would not be possible with a different voting system.

We could, however, make a change which would not need legislation or debate and end the prolonging of open-ended debates and the wasting of time by the calling of unnecessary and fatuous votes simply to delay our Adjournment each evening. It is within the power of even just two hon. Members to call a Division. If Members would act in a more mature and restrained manner, we could overcome that problem.

We could also overcome the ridiculous procedure that has been evident on Fridays in recent months of hon. Members calling "I spy Strangers" simply to disrupt the business. On one occasion in December it was done to obtain an automatic change of business because there were not sufficient hon. Members present to vote—despite the fact that it was an extremely important debate in which a number of hon. Members wanted to participate because it was of specific interest to their constituents. After about an hour and a quarter of that debate, which should have lasted five hours, it was automatically curtailed through the arrogance of two hon. Members who felt that it was their duty and right to end a debate in which they had no interest. There is something ridiculous about a system which allows that and it could be amended overnight by hon. Members behaving in a more restrained and respectable way.

6.12 pm
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

Anyone listening to this debate and hoping that the decline of Parliament will be arrested or reversed will be disappointed—unless he or she is married to a member of this Government or the next Government, in which case they will be delighted because it is obvious that the system is dominated by the Executive or the alternative Executive. If we add together the members of the Government, their Parliamentary Private Secretaries, the shadow Cabinet—almost as numerous as the Government—the former Ministers who still think as they did when they were in the Executive, the "wanabees"—those who would do almost anything to become members of the Executive—and those Members of Parliament who are coasting gently towards retirement or life after death in another place, the potential block of reformers diminishes to such an extent that hardly anyone is left to bear the torch of parliamentary reform.

There are those who are happy to watch the game of Government and Parliament being played between the Government and Opposition Front Benches. In a way, we undervalue ourselves as individuals, as parties and as a collective if we assume that once we make that journey in a car driven by a chauffeur and have our hands in a red box, somehow qualitatively and in intelligence and knowledge we are apart from the rest—that somehow on the two Front Benches there is a monopoly of competence and a residue of all the intellect, demands and requirements necessary for governing a country. Many people still think that, but surely experience should have taught even them that that perspective is wrong.

I do not argue for a Congress-style government. The right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) spoke of Congress being rather bland. I would swap the noise and excitement of this House for a little of the blandness of the US Congress because that is a real legislature—a policy-making legislature and not a policy-influencing or rubber-stamp legislature such as this place has been for a century. We shall go into the next century as supine in relation to the for the moment invisible Executive as we have been in the past.

Some of us do not necessarily want our Chamber to be called a legislature if we do not meet the basic requirements of a legislature. Almost every part of our society has seen major change during the past 20 to 50 years. Few structures in society have been left unaltered; yet parliamentary procedures and structures have been left almost intact. Apart from the lack of top hats, beards and gas lighting, a returning Disraeli or Gladstone or an analyst such a Trollope would find the House of Commons almost exactly as he had left it.

There have been changes—many, many changes—to the way in which our procedural proposals have been implemented, but let us not mistake change for reform. Changes there have been many; reforms there have been few. There has been much constitutional tinkering, but what is needed is basic reform—not necessarily immediate reform of the structures, but first a reform of attitude. I suspect that the attitude to reform is as weak now as it ever has been.

Some 10 years ago, after the 1980–81 reforms, I wrote a chapter on parliamentary reform in a book and I was rather excited about the changes that had taken place. Using something of a D-Day analogy 10 years in anticipation, I said that we had now stormed the beach head and it remained only to fan out into enemy territory and capture more and more of the bastions held by the Executive. Ten years later, however, we are as far away from reform as ever. Reform flickers on, kept alive by a few distinguished colleagues—my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) is one, and there are hon. Members on both sides who maintain the desire for reform—but tradition is strong and inertia even stronger.

In the early 1980s, there were many important changes. There was a Procedure Committee report in the mid-1970s, although only about one third of its recommendations were implemented. In 1980, we gained Select Committees, Special Standing Committees, better staffing levels, better salaries, financial reform and a House of Commons Commission. Those were substantial changes. I had hoped that a new Parliament would be strong enough to defy the Executive in some ways. There was a large influx of Conservative Members who previously had been in business, who were used to being the shakers and the movers. I had hoped that when they came to this place they would shake and move—and so they did, but into inertia. The result was that those reforms stalled and came to nothing. The Leader of the House mentioned the few little, titillating things that may come about. That is not fundamental reform. It is reforming on the edges and it will not remotely deal with the fundamental weakness of this House. We are too supine, too prepared to listen to what the Government say on their side of the House and to what our Front-Bench spokesmen and spokeswomen say on ours. Those great days of the 1970s were great days because Government Back Benchers had some influence. The Government had to take their own Back Benchers into account, which is not often done. The Opposition were happy because they had a great input in decision making. The Liberal party was happy because, for a while, it had some sort of input into decision making.

I hoped that the Select Committee on Procedure and that environment of the 1970s would provide the push for reform, which would have made the House a genuine legislature. What happened after the first reforms which introduced the four Special Standing Committees? Why was that experiment abandoned? It was abandoned for one simple reason. The Bills considered were non-contentious and absolutely non-controversial. The Criminal Attempts Bill—a little controversial—the Education Bill, the Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Bill and the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill were not basically fundamental dividing pieces of legislation, but the Government got a bloody nose. One Bill to amend the sus law was based, apparently, on the recommendations of a professor from Nottingham, but when he came before the inquiry part of the Standing Committee he said that he might have supported the Bill's principles a little time previously, but that, having seen the legislation drafted, he was totally opposed to it. It was game, set and match, and clause 1 of the Bill was withdrawn. It happened to the other Bills, too, so the Government said that they did not want the legislature to start legislating because it would be the end of the existing system of government. I have set examination questions, such as "Legislation is more the function of Government than the legislature—discuss," and it is absolutely true.

Special Standing Committees are out of the window. Select Committees, the St. John-Stevas—or the Jopling—reforms were very important, but what happened afterwards? What powers did we have? We had great powers to send for persons and papers, to meet from time to time, to appoint advisers. They were basic powers, but the whole thing hardly amounted to a row of beans. We may increase the transparency of Government, if they are prepared to have a little light shone on their activities, but after some 14 years of Select Committees and a great deal of effort involving staff, witnesses, advisers and hon. Members, what have we achieved? On how many occasions have we compelled the Government to change their mind? I suspect that the answer would not be too illuminating because it would be too humiliating to admit that, after thousands and thousands of hours of endeavour, we have made precious little impact on the process of decision making.

With other hon. Members, I have talked to those involved in the newly emerging democracies in eastern Europe. I was in eastern Europe quite recently and people there said that it was wonderful to have me come along from the mother of Parliaments, with a fine Defence Committee, and asked me to tell them what we do. They asked me to give them the secrets of our control over the budgetary process. I said, "I am sorry, but we do not have much control". They asked me what control we had over intelligence services. I said, "I am sorry, but we do not have any control at all over the intelligence services". They asked me to tell them what impact our Select Committees have on legislation. I said, "Actually, the process of legislation and the Select Committee procedure are quite separate. We have not the slightest effect on the legislative process". They said to me, "You are on the Defence Committee, Mr. George. What impact does your Committee have on the procurement process? How much of your budget is taken up with defence expenditure? What part do you play in deciding whether major or smaller items of expenditure are allowed to continue? I said, "I am very sorry, but we do not have the slightest impact." It is humiliating and embarrassing. I am not surprised that they are not asking us to tell them any more about how to become a Parliament, as we have very little to tell them. In the Ukraine recently I asked someone what they did in their Parliament and they rattled off a list of functions and powers. I told that person that people there had have achieved more in two years than we had in 700; they should not be listening to us—we should shut up and listen to them.

Mr. Jopling

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that most members of the departmental Select Committees in the House would die of shock if they were told that they had to deal with legislation as well?

Mr. George

It is not that members or supporters of the Government would necessarily feel excluded. I suspect that, if we had Special Standing Committees, Members on the Opposition Front Bench would feel a little excluded from the process. I should like to see Select Committees having a bigger legislative role. We spend a lot of time on the issues of foreign affairs, defence and education and it may be sensible that those people who develop an expertise should have some input into the process of legislation.

I am sorry to have gone on for far too long—almost as long as the Minister, the Opposition spokesman and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). Back Benchers will probably spend less than half the amount of time talking about parliamentary reform that those on the Front Benches took. I am conducting a survey of defence committees in 50 countries throughout the world and one thing is patently obvious from the 35 replies that I have received. I can put historical and contemporary defence committees from all those countries into three bundles. The United States Congress is alone. At the other end of the continuum is the supreme soviet of the Soviet Union and those former communist eastern European legislatures which had no effect on policy whatever. I would put the mass of other legislatures in the middle, but they all do more on their defence committees than we do. We have one thing in common with France: we are both supine legislatures, totally dominated by our respective Executives. So long as we are prepared to tolerate that—

Mr. Garrett

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. George

Yes, but I was about to finish.

Mr. Garrett

I very much sympathise with what my hon. Friend says and he is absolutely right, but surely our Select Committees have all the terms of reference that they need. All that they lack is the ambition on the part of their members to be more effective. That is the heart of problem.

Mr. George

I said earlier that it was an attitudinal problem more than a procedural problem. Our Defence Committee is very active, there is a 76 per cent. attendance rate, we produce many reports and we do a very good job, but we have been so used to being spoon fed and to having big brother tell us what to do that we would not know what to do if we were given the freedom to do it. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South is absolutely right. There ought to be collusion between all the eight sets of Back Benchers. That happens occasionally when we discuss pay and research assistants, but those are the only occasions on which there is a cross-party Back-Bench alliance. I like to think of myself as a Back Bencher in the House. I am not ashamed of being a Back Bencher only. I am not ashamed that I have not been called to high office. I believe that being a Back Bencher ought to be important, but regrettably it is not important. I should like to see Back Benchers on both sides of the House getting together against the Government Front Bench, the Opposition Front Bench, and perhaps even against hon. Members on some part of the Liberal Democrat Bench, to say that we must do more. We have a collective expertise that is not insignificant. Let us try to exercise those powers more strongly than in the past. Let us try to defy our Front Benches a little more and perhaps we shall see a Palace of Westminster that is vibrant and not merely an echo chamber for our respective Front Benches.

6.30 pm
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) struck a chord in his concluding remarks with those of us who have never held office, and never will, in this place. I congratulate him on the content of his speech and on the atmosphere that he created. To be honest, I think that he is rather pessimistic about the reforms or changes that have taken place. I suspect that, deep down, he is arguing for a separation of powers between the House and the Government, but that separation cannot take place. A relevant comparison, perhaps, is the way in which the House does its work and the approach adopted by the United States Congress. That, however, is a wider subject and I do not want to trespass on it.

Shortness of time—perhaps this is just as well—precludes me from saying very much about the Liberal Democrats' motion. The leader of that party, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), sets out in his book—I hasten to add that I have not bought a copy; instead I obtained a copy from the Library—with some pride how he decided to leave the House for two and a half days every week to travel round the country.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman appreciates a free plug for "Beyond Westminster: finding hope in Britain". I suppose that most of us do not have the luxury of leaving the House for two and a half days a week, depending on our parliamentary duties. There may be a few who think that the right hon. Gentleman's approach is treating Parliament with contempt, but I let that pass.

I want to talk about the Jopling Committee's report because I was a member of that Committee. I agree very much with the comments of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Indeed, I often agree with the hon. Lady, as she knows so well. We serve together on a Standing Committee on European Documents. I agreed with her so much when she said that the House cannot be treated like a factory. Basically, parliamentary democracy is a messy business. It cannot be organised to the nth degree. In modern Labour party terms, I suppose that I count myself as a moderniser of the House. Given all the arguments that the hon. Lady advanced so eloquently, we should not be prevented from trying to do our job or from trying to ensure that the House does its job that much better than it does now.

Things have changed dramatically in the past 20 years or so. I arrived in the Press Gallery as a journalist more than 30 years ago. That being so, I am aware of the changes that have taken place, not least in the workings of the parliamentary press.

Mr. Dalyell

Its representatives are not here.

Mr. Harris

One or two are. At 5 o'clock, there was only one reporter in the Press Gallery, who was from the Press Association. When I came to the Press Gallery decades ago, The Daily Telegraph, for which I worked, had a substantial Gallery staff as well as a Lobby staff. Two of us were always left on until 4 am, which was the final time for the last edition. We remained so that we could flash through to the stop press the immortal words, "The House was still sitting at 4 am." Nowadays, not many journalists are in the Press Gallery, and certainly not after 6 pm. I am not saying, of course, that we should tailor our proceedings in response to the publicity that we get or do not get, but attendance in the Press Gallery is one change in the equation.

There have been many other changes, including some that I think and hope make it inevitable that the time has come for the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). The tragic death of the Leader of the Opposition, the late John Smith, has given impetus to the report. It is recognised that there is a need for change.

In addition, there was the lamentable breakdown of relationships between the two Front Benches a short while ago. I shall not go into the reasons, because I think that most of us have forgotten what the argument was about. That breakdown told us, however, that the Opposition do not achieve their aims by trying to keep the House up all night. Those days have gone. They might have applied some years ago, but the Great British public are certainly not impressed nowadays by the macho business of the House sitting right through the night. That cuts no ice outside. Oppositions do not achieve their aim by going in for those tactics. Governments, both Conservative and Labour, are usually resilient enough to withstand that sort of pressure. As I have said, no one is listening and no one is impressed. That is a great change.

The attitude of the membership of the House has changed. It is true that many of those who have come into the House in recent intakes regard staying up all night as nonsensical.

The most important reason why we should change our procedures is that we need to make the current way in which we approach legislation much more effective. It is nonsensical for us to spend hours and hours, especially in Committee or on Report, either in Committee Rooms or on the Floor of the House, on matters that do not count—time-wasting matters. When that happens, the Government introduce a timetable motion. We then have to rush through the concluding parts of the Bill without due consideration. It is far better to have a sensible timetable—we can argue about how we arrive at it—and consider the Bill in a measured way. I think that that approach will make for much better government.

We have every reason to criticise all Governments for bringing so much unprepared legislation before the House. For a time, I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Howe, as he is now.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Very distinguished.

Mr. Harris

Indeed. When he was Leader of the House, I was appalled at the way in which draftsmen had not prepared legislation because of the pressure that had been put on them, in a proper way. It was taken for granted that much of that legislation would be corrected in Committee, on the Floor of the House or in another place. That is not the right way to proceed. We want much less legislation and much better-quality legislation, and that is what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said. Those developments are essential.

The right time must be taken to consider reports such as that which has been produced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. As I have said, I think that its time has come, just as I think that the introduction of the televising of the House took place at precisely the right time. I was opposed to the televising of our proceedings when it was proposed earlier, but I took the view that, with changing circumstances, it was right to introduce it when it happened, not least for technical reasons. Despite what was said much earlier in the debate, it has been a great success. If we approach the Jopling report in the spirit of consensus, the changes outlined in it will similarly be a great success.

Finally, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I thought that he came in for some unfair criticism from the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett). I believe that my right hon. Friend has approached the issue in the correct way. I was pleased to hear the tribute paid to him by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). My right hon. Friend is proceeding carefully. He has to balance all the difficulties that lie with the need for reform against the sensible points made by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich. These are difficult matters, but I am confident that the House is now reaching consensus. I believe that the consensus will result not in the dramatic changes that some Members want but in a structure that will enable the House to perform its ancient function in modern times in a much better way than it has done in recent years.

6.39 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In the two minutes available, I want simply to focus on Prime Minister's questions.

Last autumn, I was incapacitated following a hip operation. Therefore, I had to watch Tuesday's, Wednesday's and Thursday's "Westminster Live". Never was there a greater misnomer among programmes. It was not Westminster live at all. It was punditry and Prime Minister's questions.

That leads me to the point that many of our constituents have the impression that Parliament is simply Prime Minister's questions and little else. Bluntly, sitting there, I was ashamed of how the House of Commons looked.

I can tell the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) that it was not a question of rapier-like debate. It was a bear garden. There were very few rapier-like debates. I believe that there is a solution to that. First, television has an obligation to broadcast questions other than Prime Minister's questions and to give a good deal of time to them. Great credit often comes to the House of Commons from specific questions.

We should return to the very old days when my first Prime Minister, Mr. Harold Macmillan, would transfer any question which was not directly relevant to the office of Prime Minister. That had several advantages. It led to coherent questioning and the Prime Minister would know what subjects he had to address.

I should like to ask the Leader of the House a question. How much time, effort and energy does the Prime Minister of the day have to spend having the day's papers examined in an effort to identify what questions he is likely to be asked?

Mr. Harris

All morning.

Mr. Dalyell

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) says all morning. I do not think that the Prime Minister of Great Britain should have to spend all morning searching around and wondering what he or she would be asked. I hope that an incoming Labour Prime Minister would not have to do that. That was one of the points that I raised with John Smith. The amount of civil service time taken up in that procedure is absolutely appalling.

There is an answer to that problem, and that is the use of the private notice question by the Opposition Front Bench. If that process were used, there could be coherent scrutiny which is simply not possible under a system which, whether or not we like it in this House, has become a disgrace to Parliament.

6.42 pm
Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

I am grateful for the opportunity to sum up this important debate for my party. I have enjoyed listening to some excellent contributions from all parts of the House. However, I was saddened by the fact that some hon. Members preferred to close their eyes to the real issue. They are like people on the Titanic insisting that the ship is unsinkable as they slide across the dining room floor which is at an angle of 45 deg. They argue that our parliamentary democracy is in safe hands as long as it is in the hands of the Conservative Front Bench or the Opposition Front Bench.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) made a telling and important contribution. I heard no argument against his position from any hon. Member which persuaded me that his analysis was faulty. Whatever some Conservative or Opposition Members may feel, it is quite obvious to me that Parliament, and the House of Commons in particular, has seen its reputation collapse.

In my constituency and around the country, I am frequently asked what on earth Members of Parliament are playing at down here in Westminster. Very often that question is put as a joke because that is how our antics are viewed by a vast proportion of the public. However, the sad fact is that it is no laughing matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall made his points very well. The picture that he painted was worrying to any believer in the value of the democratic process. However, for those who still doubt that there is any need for change, the way in which the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill and other private Members' Bills have been treated is a perfect example of everything that has gone rotten at the heart of government. It provides overwhelming evidence for the kind of reform of Parliament for which we have been calling for a good many years.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

The hon. Lady is right to particularise about issues of concern. The Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill has now been discussed here and in the House of Lords for 37 and a half hours. There has been no vote against its principles or purpose. It has been subjected to systematic obstruction.

Ms Lynne

I am grateful for that intervention. As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) said, the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill has been brought before this House 12 times in the past 20 years. Disabled people today are in almost the same position that they were in 20 years ago. They are still second-class citizens. They are still denied their basic civil rights and they are still unable to take their rightful place in society and make the contribution to that society that they are able to make. The reason is that the Government did not like the Bill. What a disgrace and what total abuse of power.

The Government have not liked previous Bills conferring civil rights on disabled people. However, civil rights for disabled people is a very popular idea. No one can understand why disabled people should not be given the same rights as women and ethnic minorities whose special rights are guaranteed in law. Those views, which are held in the country, are also held in this House where an overall majority of hon. Members, from all parties and from both sides of the House, support the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. However, the Government do not like the Bill.

We are in a position where the majority of people in the country and the majority of hon. Members want civil rights legislation for disabled people, but because the Government, for their own peculiar and dogmatic reasons, do not want that legislation on the statute book, there is nothing anyone can do about it. That is an abuse of the principle that Parliament is sovereign. It replaces that principle with a notion that it is the Government who should be able to dictate every aspect of our lives quite irrespective of the concerns of modern British society.

That situation shows up most glaringly the urgent need for the reform of the procedure by which the merits of private Members' Bills are tested in the House. After all, the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is not the only example of a private Member's Bill which has been wrecked by the Government, but, in my opinion, it is one of the worst. The same thing happened to the Medicines Information Bill, the Tobacco Advertising Bill and the Energy Conservation Bill, to name just a few.

The Medicines Information Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), sought to amend section 118 of the Medicines Act 1968 and give the public a right to know facts about the safety and effectiveness of medicines, the reasons for a licence having been granted and details of any side-effects reported after licensing. The Bill was supported by almost every medical body, by the National Consumer Council and by groups representing people who are the victims of the side-effects of drugs. However, the Bill had two opponents: certain sections of the pharmaceutical industry and the Government.

The Medicines Information Bill went through its first two stages without much of a hitch. However, the wrecking amendments appeared all of a sudden in Committee. The fate of the Bill was therefore sealed. On Report, more than 40 extra amendments were tabled, and the Bill was talked out. So much for the commitment to open government that was made by the Prime Minister from his soapbox only a year previously. So much for parliamentary democracy.

Mr. Duncan

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Lynne

I am afraid that I do not have time; the Leader of the House wishes to speak.

The fate of the Tobacco Advertising Bill, which was sponsored by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), was the same. The purpose of that Bill was to ban tobacco advertising so that young people especially were not tempted to take up smoking. The idea behind it was to reduce the incidence of smoking-related illness which, apart from being a tragedy to sufferers and their families, is a huge financial burden on the health service. Once again, the Bill was supported by all medical bodies and had widespread support from the public at large and the majority of hon. Members. The Bill had two opponents: yet again the Government and the tobacco industry.

In Committee, wrecking amendments were tabled and defeated, so on Report 108 amendments were tabled by Conservative Members and, yet again, the Bill was talked out. So much for the sovereignty of Parliament.

The Energy Conservation Bill, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), was another tragic case in point. I say "tragic" because its provisions would have led to help being given to those suffering most acutely the imposition of VAT on fuel. Again, that Bill had widespread support in the House, support from concerned organisations and support from people throughout the country, but, once again, the Bill was opposed by the Government. Many amendments, this time drafted by parliamentary counsel, on the instructions of the Secretary of State for the Environment, were tabled and the Bill was talked out. So much for the Government who listen.

Mr. Jopling

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Lynne

I am afraid I do not have time. [Interruption.] I am sorry; the Leader of the House wishes to speak.

So much for the Government who listen and who believe in the sovereignty of Parliament. The Government, with impunity, use their control over the allocation of time in the Chamber to stifle any legislation however popular, however necessary and however important if they and their friends in big business find their own reasons for doing so.

Recently, a more sinister development has come to our attention. During debate on the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, I and other Members requested the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People and Back-Bench Conservative Members to reveal the source of the amendments that they had tabled. The answers to those questions resulted in two Members, including the Minister, being forced on to the Floor of the House to apologise for misleading the House. That was an unprecedented occurrence within anyone's memory. They had been hiding the fact that many of the amendments that had been tabled had been drafted by civil servants in the form of parliamentary counsel, not only under instructions from the Department, under the Secretary of State for Social Security, but with the collusion of the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Education.

Mr. Jopling

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Lynne

I am afraid I do not have time; it is 6.52 pm.

That civil servants should be used in that way to further party political policy is to plumb new depths of abuse.

Through a series of further written questions, I managed to force an admission from four Ministers that they had authorised parliamentary counsel to draft amendments to private Members' Bills that were opposed by the Government. Those amendments were then passed to Conservative Back-Bench Members so that they would do the Government's dirty work. It is obvious that that practice has become endemic. It is obvious also that the civil service is no longer independent.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall rightly said, comprehensive reform of Parliament is needed so that those abuses do not occur again. But, as a first step, the Government could show their willingness to tackle the crisis of confidence by changing the procedure by which private Members' Bills are considered. Private Members' Bills should be eligible for timetabling in the same way as Government business, a whole day should be devoted to Third Reading, and a vote should then be taken. Perhaps also the ten-minute rule could be applied to debate on private Members' Bills to prevent filibuster. That matter has been considered by the Procedure Committee. One of its suggestions which seems to have merit is that, at 2.30 pm on Fridays, private Members should be able to move that extra time be provided on a later Government day after 10 pm. That would go some way to redressing the balance between Government business and private Members' Bills, although not as far as I should like it.

At the moment, the Government of the day can crush without difficulty any legislation that they do not explicitly approve. The elderly people of this country who have lost the opportunity for savings against VAT on fuel deserve the ending of that systematic abuse. The children who, in the next few years, will be attracted to smoking, and the bereaved families of smokers who died from their addiction deserve changes to be made urgently to the Government's power over the business of the House.

The victims of the side-effects of drugs who were unable to judge for themselves whether to balance the benefits of drugs against their side-effects deserve the restoration of the sovereignty of Parliament so that it becomes more than just a slogan. The disabled people of Britain who have to face yet another day of systematic and institutionalised discrimination deserve the Government doing more than just paying lip service to our democratic institutions.

Hundreds of hon. Members are trying to represent their constituencies fairly and honourably, but they are being thwarted by the Government's obsession with their own dogmatic concerns and sectional interests. I ask that the House supports the motion which could lead us into a new era of enfranchisement, involvement and enablement—the true constituents of a real democracy. We cannot afford to wait any longer.

6.56 pm
Mr. Newton

With the leave of the House, I shall offer just a few comments on the debate, although obviously in a few minutes—I accept that I sought only a few minutes—I cannot comment on all the points that have been made, by any manner of means.

I understand why the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) said what she did and, perhaps, why she did not wish to give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). One of the interesting aspects of this matter is that my right hon. Friend's Committee—I think that my right hon. Friend will confirm it—has received almost no representations whether from the Liberal Democrats or from elsewhere about the handling of private Members' Bills, but no doubt he will have heard with interest some of the points that have been made.

The only point that I make in response to the hon. Lady is that she might at least have acknowledged that the Government have made clear their reasons for concern about the practical consequences of the proposals in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill and their concern to make positive progress, to the extent that the Government themselves will consult on a number of key matters in relation to discrimination against disabled people—for example, discrimination in employment, in access to goods and services, and in the provision of financial services. They will consult also on extending access provisions and creating a new independent body to advise the Government and to report on progress towards eliminating discrimination. That is an important and positive attempt to seek genuinely workable and practicable ways forward, and the hon. Lady might at least have acknowledged that in pursuing the controversy.

Many other points have been made. I was grateful to my right hon. Friend for acknowledging that he feels, as I do and as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) does, that it is important to make progress in this matter on the basis of consensus to the maximum possible extent. That has certainly been my approach.

We heard with great and genuine interest the cautionary notes struck by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) and others about how, sometimes, procedures that are regarded as arcane and complex are nevertheless an important part of hon. Members' armoury in pursuing their interests as Members. I say only—I see that the Liberal Chief Whip is looking anxiously at his watch lest I should talk the motion out, but that is not my intention—that some remarks made by the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) and some of my hon. Friends were less than gracious. Perhaps he gave the game away when he said that the problem was not the powers that the Government have given Select Committees or the efforts that I have made, but, and I think that I noted his comments right, that all that these Committees lack is the ambition of hon. Members to use those powers. That may or may not be the case, but it is a criticism not of the Government but of hon. Members.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 44, Noes 187.

Division No. 266] [6.59 pm
Alton, David Harvey, Nick
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Hinchliffe, David
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Barnes, Harry Jamieson, David
Beith, Rt Hon A. J. Johnston, Sir Russell
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Kennedy, Charles (Ross, C&S)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Lynne, Ms Liz
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Mackinlay, Andrew
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry) Maclennan, Robert
Chidgey, David Maddock, Mrs Diana
Corbyn, Jeremy Mahon, Alice
Cousins, Jim Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)
Dalyell, Tam Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)
Etherington, Bill Olner, William
Flynn, Paul Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Foster, Don (Bath) Rendel, David
Galloway, George Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Garrett, John Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
George, Bruce Tyler, Paul
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Tellers for the Ayes:
Hall, Mike Mr. Archy Kirkwood and
Hanson, David Mr. Nigel Jones.
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Devlin, Tim
Alexander, Richard Dixon, Don
Amess, David Dorrell, Stephen
Arbuthnot, James Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Dover, Den
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Duncan, Alan
Ashby, David Duncan-Smith, Iain
Aspinwall, Jack Dykes, Hugh
Atkins, Robert Elletson, Harold
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North) Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Fabricant, Michael
Bates, Michael Fenner, Dame Peggy
Beresford, Sir Paul Fishburn, Dudley
Biffen, Rt Hon John Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Blackburn, Dr John G. Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)
Booth, Hartley Freeman, Rt Hon Roger
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) French, Douglas
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Gallie, Phil
Bowden, Sir Andrew Gardiner, Sir George
Bowis, John Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan
Brandreth, Gyles Gillan, Cheryl
Brazier, Julian Golding, Mrs Llin
Bright, Graham Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Browning, Mrs. Angela Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Grylls, Sir Michael
Burns, Simon Hague, William
Burt, Alistair Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Butler, Peter Hannam, Sir John
Callaghan, Jim Harris, David
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln) Haselhurst, Alan
Carrington, Matthew Hawkins, Nick
Carttiss, Michael Hawksley, Warren
Church, Judith Hayes, Jerry
Churchill, Mr Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence L.
Clappison, James Hill, James (Southampton Test)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Horam, John
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)
Coe, Sebastian Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Colvin, Michael Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Congdon, David Jessel, Toby
Conway, Derek Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Kirkhope, Timothy
Day, Stephen Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Lawrence, Sir Ivan Speed, Sir Keith
Lewis, Terry Spencer, Sir Derek
Lidington, David Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Lloyd, Rt Hon Peter (Fareham) Spink, Dr Robert
Luff, Peter Sproat, Iain
MacKay, Andrew Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
McLoughlin, Patrick Steen, Anthony
Madden, Max Stephen, Michael
Maitland, Lady Olga Stern, Michael
Malone, Gerald Stewart, Allan
Mans, Keith Streeter, Gary
Marshall, John (Hendon S) Sweeney, Walter
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Sykes, John
Mates, Michael Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Merchant, Piers Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Moate, Sir Roger Thomason, Roy
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Monro, Sir Hector Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Moss, Malcolm Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Neubert, Sir Michael Townend, John (Bridlington)
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Trend, Michael
Nicholls, Patrick Trotter, Neville
Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley Twinn, Dr Ian
Oppenheim, Phillip Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Page, Richard Viggers, Peter
Patnick, Irvine Walden, George
Pawsey, James Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Waterson, Nigel
Pickles, Eric Wells, Bowen
Porter, David (Waveney) Whittingdale, John
Portillo, Rt Hon Michael Widdecombe, Ann
Redwood, Rt Hon John Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Richards, Rod Willetts, David
Riddick, Graham Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Robinson, Mark (Somerton) Wood, Timothy
Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent) Yeo, Tim
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Shaw, David (Dover) Tellers for the Noes:
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Mr. Sydney Chapman and
Skeet, Sir Trevor Mr. David Lightbown.
Skinner, Dennis

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments.)

The House divided: Ayes 160, Noes 54.

Division No. 267] [7.12 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Burns, Simon
Alexander, Richard Burt, Alistair
Amess, David Butler, Peter
Arbuthnot, James Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Carrington, Matthew
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Carttiss, Michael
Ashby, David Clappison, James
Atkins, Robert Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North) Coe, Sebastian
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Colvin, Michael
Bates, Michael Congdon, David
Beresford, Sir Paul Conway, Derek
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Booth, Hartley Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Bowden, Sir Andrew Day, Stephen
Bowis, John Devlin, Tim
Brandreth, Gyles Dorrell, Stephen
Brazier, Julian Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Bright, Graham Dover, Den
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Duncan, Alan
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Duncan-Smith, Iain
Browning, Mrs. Angela Dykes, Hugh
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Elletson, Harold
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield) Neubert, Sir Michael
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Nicholls, Patrick
Fabricant, Michael Oppenheim, Phillip
Fenner, Dame Peggy Page, Richard
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Patnick, Irvine
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Pawsey, James
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley) Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Pickles, Eric
French, Douglas Porter, David (Waveney)
Gallie, Phil Redwood, Rt Hon John
Gardiner, Sir George Richards, Rod
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan Riddick, Graham
Gillan, Cheryl Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Shaw, David (Dover)
Hague, William Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Skeet, Sir Trevor
Hannam, Sir John Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Harris, David Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Haselhurst, Alan Spencer, Sir Derek
Hawkins, Nick Sproat, Iain
Hayes, Jerry Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence L. Steen, Anthony
Hill, James (Southampton Test) Stephen, Michael
Horam, John Stern, Michael
Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W) Stewart, Allan
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne) Streeter, Gary
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas Sweeney, Walter
Jessel, Toby Sykes, John
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr) Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Thomason, Roy
Kirkhope, Timothy Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash) Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Kynoch, George (Kincardine) Townend, John (Bridlington)
Lawrence, Sir Ivan Trend, Michael
Lidington, David Trotter, Neville
Lightbown, David Twinn, Dr Ian
Lloyd, Rt Hon Peter (Fareham) Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Luff, Peter Viggers, Peter
MacKay, Andrew Walden, George
McLoughlin, Patrick Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Maitland, Lady Olga Waterson, Nigel
Malone, Gerald Wells, Bowen
Mans, Keith Whittingdale, John
Marshall, John (Hendon S) Widdecombe, Ann
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Willetts, David
Merchant, Piers Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Yeo, Tim
Moate, Sir Roger
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Tellers for the Ayes:
Monro, Sir Hector Mr. Sydney Chapman and
Moss, Malcolm Mr. Timothy Wood.
Alton, David Golding, Mrs Llin
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Hall, Mike
Barnes, Harry Hanson, David
Beith, Rt Hon A. J. Harvey, Nick
Bennett, Andrew F. Hinchliffe, David
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Hutton, John
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry) Johnston, Sir Russell
Chidgey, David Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Kennedy, Charles (Ross, C&S)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Kirkwood, Archy
Corbyn, Jeremy Lynne, Ms Liz
Cousins, Jim Mackinlay, Andrew
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Maclennan, Robert
Dalyell, Tam Madden, Max
Dixon, Don Maddock, Mrs Diana
Flynn, Paul Mahon, Alice
Foster, Don (Bath) Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)
George, Bruce Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)
Godman, Dr Norman A. O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire)
O'Hara, Edward Timms, Stephen
Olner, William Turner, Dennis
Rendel, David Tyler, Paul
Spellar, John
Steel, Rt Hon Sir David Tellers for the Noes:
Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury) Mr. Terry Lewis and
Taylor, Matthew (Truro) Mr. Dennis Skinner.

Question accordingly agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House congratulates the Government for its initiative in setting up the Select Committee on Sittings of the House (the Jopling Committee); supports the objectives of making agreed improvements in the House's hours of sittings and working methods; and welcomes the Prime Minister's recent statement reaffirming the Government's commitment to progress on parliamentary reform.