HC Deb 22 May 1997 vol 294 cc901-41

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Clelland.]

7.19 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, thank you for calling me to open this debate during which we shall discuss some of the ideas that have been advanced for modernising the procedures of the House of Commons. I am pleased that the Government have been able to provide time for the debate during only the second full week of this Parliament. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Hon. Members must leave the Chamber quickly and quietly. There is a debate going on and the Leader of the House is at the Dispatch Box.

Mrs. Taylor

I hope that, by holding this debate so early in the Parliament, we have proved our serious intent in terms of facilitating improvements in the workings of Parliament.

After only two or three weeks in this place, many new Members are bewildered by some of the practices of the House and are keen to see some changes. I am glad to see so many hon. Members present for this debate, not least because there has been little interest when we have debated the workings of the House previously.

We have encountered some practical problems since Parliament resumed—including hon Members' complaints about the difficulty of fitting so many of them into one Division Lobby. I know that hon. Members are considering some imaginative solutions to that problem.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I have two specific ideas that my right hon. Friend and others might consider. First, the construction of a third desk in the Lobbies would allow the traffic to flow more quickly. Secondly, we could examine the two-minute break between the announcement of the Division and the tellers going to the Doors. Those two proposals could conceivably save three or four minutes.

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his constructive suggestion. I hope that there will be many more such suggestions not just this evening, but during the sittings of the proposed Select Committee on modernisation. I note that my hon. Friend did not suggest introducing electronic voting or anything like that; that may be because he has been in this place long enough to know the value of Divisions, when hon. Members have a chance to meet their colleagues and—whether they are the newest or the most experienced Back Benchers—to lobby Ministers. I hope that many ideas will be forthcoming in that area.

This evening I shall discuss some of the issues that I believe the new Committee should address. As shadow Leader of the House, I made it clear that, although I think that Parliament can deal excellently with some issues and situations, it does not organise itself to do the best possible job in other areas.

The roles of Back Benchers and new Members of Parliament have changed over the years. When I first came to the House in the mid-1970s—I must admit that it is a long time ago—Back Benchers could adopt two distinct roles. The first was to climb the ministerial ladder, starting as a parliamentary private secretary; the second, very legitimate and respected, role was to become a senior Back Bencher. That group dominated many debates and Question Times. It may be that, with many Back Benchers on one side of the House, more hon. Members will be interested in developing the role of the Back Bencher. I think that it is in the interests of the House to recreate and re-evaluate that role. We should have regard to that point when considering possible changes.

The second big change that has occurred since the 1970s is a consequence of one party being in government for 18 years. I do not seek to make a partisan point, because it might have happened to any party that stayed in power for a long time. After a time, the Conservative Government believed that they could get away with anything, do anything and push any legislation through the House; while too many Opposition Members believed that they could not achieve anything.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

If that is the case, would it not be a good idea to introduce a freedom of information Act immediately? That would ensure that that situation does not arise again.

Mrs. Taylor

I ask my hon. Friend to be patient, as I shall return to that point later. As a very experienced senior Back Bencher, she will agree that there is a danger of Governments and Oppositions adopting rigid roles. For a time in the 1980s, the Labour party suffered from Oppositionitis and the Government suffered from—

Mr. Skinner


Mrs. Taylor

—Governmentitis—or arrogance, as my hon. Friend neatly puts it. It may be time to reassess the role of both sides. When the Prime Minister told a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party that we are the servants now, he was reinforcing the need for Governments to re-examine their role and not act with the arrogance that, as my hon. Friend pointed out, was the hallmark of the recent past.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

While the right hon. Lady is on the theme of arrogance—and lest anyone misunderstand her comments—will she pursue that line in the context of her colleagues' recent actions when they displayed what many inside and outside the House regard as arrogance by making very important policy statements outside Parliament without consulting this place? That does not seem to be a very good background against which to develop the hon. Lady's argument.

Mrs. Taylor

I was hoping to have a constructive debate this evening. As a Minister in the previous Government—recalling his time as Education Minister, I believe that he was guilty occasionally—the hon. Gentleman should be cautious about his remarks. I think that all Ministers should treat the House with the respect that it deserves, as I said during business questions earlier today. Any change in Government policy should be reported to the House, but I do not think that statements should be made on the Floor of the House about every policy item-that certainly never happened when the hon. Gentleman's party was in government. Whenever parliamentary change is discussed, everyone mentions the Jopling reforms and the changes that were introduced some time ago. I remind the House of two things. First, as I said at the time, Jopling dealt with only a narrow range of issues: the hours of Parliament and how they were arranged; and, to a certain and minor extent, the balance between Committee work and work on the Floor of the House.

Secondly, hon. Members should remember that, although Jopling reported relatively quickly, the House sat on the report for almost three years before implementing its recommendations. I hope that, when a new Committee is established and begins to report to the House—hopefully, there will be a succession of reports; I do not want it to deliberate for two years before offering some ideas—there will be change relatively quickly, and much agreement about moving on some of its recommendations.

Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's remarks about moving quickly. As she will know, many of the new Labour Back Benchers are women. They and other new Members of Parliament must have an opportunity to contribute to parliamentary Committees while they are relatively new. We should listen to their experiences and take advantage now of their expertise and skills.

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I share her concern that we should move quickly in setting up departmental Select Committees so that hon. Members have a chance to work in the way that they wish.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

For accuracy, and only for that, it should be made clear that implementation of the report of the Jopling Committee, on which the right hon. Lady and I served, was held up for many moons by an hon. Member with a small majority who used to sit on the Opposition Front Bench as the deputy Chief Whip. He was against anything all the while on the Jopling report. It must be made clear that that was the delaying factor.

Mrs. Taylor

I think that there were several hon. Members on both sides of the House who were not happy with the proposed changes. In the end, however, those changes were implemented. I like to think that I played some small part in that process.

The fact that we on the Government Benches want to encourage the House to change should come as no surprise to anyone. It is made clear in the Labour party's manifesto that we, the Labour party, believe that the House is in need of modernisation and that we will ask the House to establish a Select Committee to review its procedures. I have said over a long time that I think that the House needs change.

The desire to improve the workings of Parliament is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Yes, there have been some—on both sides of the Chamber—who have resisted change, but the majority, certainly on the Labour Benches, and a good many who represent the minority parties and those who represent the official Opposition, want constructive change. There is a wish to take the opportunity that is now available to us.

I wish to signal priorities and the way in which the Committee might consider the issues that I think need attention. There are four themes to the changes that could perhaps be brought about. First, and, I think, the most important, is the production of better legislation. In that, we all have a responsibility. Ministers have a responsibility, and so does Parliament generally. After all, we are the legislature. I hope that the new Committee will give that area particular priority.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Would it not be better if much more legislation were routed through the Select Committees, so that Select Committees could take evidence from those interested in particular subjects? Should we not try to ensure that the result is legislation that is much better than that which we have seen in the past?

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his constructive suggestion. I am coming precisely to his point. We all know that, far too often, legislation has to be amended because of practical difficulties and mistakes that could have been spotted and dealt with at the time of consideration. That is not, I think, the result of poor draftsmanship. Difficulties and mistakes often occur because of the political imperatives that stem from Governmentitis. It seems that Governments feel that they should never accept an amendment moved by an Opposition Member. All too often, there has been no scope for constructive criticism.

Mr. Forth

The House should not imagine that a previous Government were necessarily completely at fault for a failure properly to scrutinise legislation in Committee. Will the right hon. Lady accept that what happened in Standing Committees was largely under the control of the then Opposition, and that all too often time was wasted at the beginning of a Bill's consideration in Committee, with endless filibustering on the sittings motion, for example, with the result that the end of the time available for consideration came too soon in one sense, and some parts of the Bill received no consideration at all? We should consider that as well as the behaviour of the Government.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman's remarks might carry some weight were it not for the fact that I have served on Standing Committees with him. I was a member of a Committee on which he was the Minister. The Government, late in the day, came up with nearly 1,000 amendments on that Bill. I do not think that we, the Government, can take lectures on the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Has my right hon. Friend studied the Committee proceedings on the personal pensions legislation in 1986 and the Child Support Agency legislation—enactments that did no credit to the House? The problems that ensued—they were enormous because 2 million people were cheated on personal pensions, and we all know of the tragedies and injustices that resulted from the Child Support Agency—arose from the fact that the two major parties were confrontational. They did not listen to each other and there was no rational scrutiny of the enabling Bills. That is the type of scrutiny that we must introduce into a new system of pre-legislative inquiries.

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend is anticipating the very points that I am about to make.

It is rather obvious that a Government have the right to initiate legislation for which they have a mandate or when problems arise. Much of that legislation will be controversial and it will be promoted or forced through robustly; however, there are areas of legislation where there might be differences of approach or of priorities across the party divide, but where at the same time there is agreement on an objective, or where there is agreement that a certain problem needs to be tackled. My hon. Friend's example about pensions was extremely useful in highlighting that point.

There is scope for considering to what extent we would gain by having more Bills published in draft and, possibly, by having pre-legislative Committees to examine draft Bills or White Papers or—it is not the method that I would prefer—using departmental Select Committees. The use of such Committees is still worthy of consideration. These are the very issues that the proposed Committee might consider.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I remind my right hon. Friend that a Special Standing Committee was set up three years ago, I think, to examine the Children (Scotland) Bill. The establishment of the Committee enabled us to cross-examine expert witnesses. It may be useful to reflect on the Standing Order—I think that it is Standing Order No. 91—that allows such a Committee to be created. That might be a useful way forward.

Mrs. Taylor

I agree. There were times during the previous Parliament when we, the then Opposition, suggested that very procedure. We were told, however, that it would not be acceptable. I think that we need to change our approach and to consider the approach that my hon. Friend has suggested in appropriate circumstances.

I am not saying that every Bill should receive consideration by pre-legislative Committees or a Special Standing Committee; that could cause unnecessary duplication and delay. We should, however, consider what is appropriate for each Bill, and Government and Parliament should be more willing to use the available options more freely. There should be more discussion about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) mentioned the Child Support Agency. There was agreement on both sides of the House that something should be done and that fathers had a responsibility towards their children. The Bill was subject to the usual procedures, and I understand why the then Government wanted to act quickly. At the end of the day, however, the Bill was flawed. It satisfied no one and angered many. We all received the case load that proved that.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I speak as a Chairman of Committees. I am always disturbed that Government Back-Bench Members, whichever party is in government, say virtually nothing. They have a contribution to make and Bills should be timetabled in such a way that Government as well as Opposition Back-Bench Members can make constructive contributions to debate.

Mrs. Taylor

There has to be a role for constructive contributions, and Back Benchers—and we have many of them—will be very dissatisfied if they are not allowed to make a constructive contribution.

Had we scrutinised the Child Support Agency Bill differently, some of that scrutiny might have led to delay. In those circumstances, there are already provisions for the use of a rollover mechanism, but at the moment that is considered to be dreadful and something that should never happen. If we take a more mature approach and allow extra time for better scrutiny, we must consider whether we should move in that direction.

The Government are willing to acknowledge that more could be done by way of publishing draft Bills. In fact, it is our intention to publish during this Session a record number of draft Bills—we will move on this as quickly as possible—on a range of subjects: a food standards agency, freedom of information and tobacco advertising. Although there might be disagreement about how we should tackle the problems of smoking, especially among young people, there is cross-party agreement that something should be done. Other subjects include financial services, limited liability partnerships and the control of communicable diseases. There are areas where we could, to good effect, publish draft Bills and then consider the role of Parliament in ensuring proper scrutiny.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in addition to draft Bills, which can perform a useful function, the fact that the Government are looking at other consensus-building mechanisms on the big political issues of the day should be welcomed? I add my welcome—I hope that she will, too—to the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary just a couple of days ago that he wishes to make early progress on the establishment of a commission to examine the methods that are used to elect Members to this place. That is a consensus-building mechanism that can work and needs to be welcomed.

Mr. Skinner

Steady with that one.

Mrs. Taylor

I always take advice from my hon. Friend, and if he says steady, I shall be very careful about what I say.

We have all experienced problems—some of which my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) raised in an Adjournment debate yesterday morning—in elections. There are problems that we should look at on an all-party basis, and if we can arrive at solutions, so much the better.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that there is much truth in the aphorism that he who governs least governs best, and that one problem that we in this place have is that we all rush to the judgment that we know what is better for other people and then end up making very bad legislation and very complicated lives for the people whom we seek to govern? Will she bear that in mind in her haste to introduce all these new Bills?

Mrs. Taylor

I shall certainly bear in mind what the hon. Lady said. She spoke about the complexities of Bills. Let me add a personal note. Legislation should be as understandable as possible. Anyone who can find a way to present our legislation in plain English will certainly get a great deal of credit from me.

On the amount of legislation that is necessary, I am afraid that, on a partisan note, much needs to be done to redress some of the balance of the past few years.

I was asked about the proper programming of legislation. I hope that the new Committee will examine that. We need to consider what alternatives there might be to the guillotine imposed by the Government with a majority and the voluntary understandings that have been tried in the past. Sometimes they have worked, sometimes not, but there is scope to see what other mechanisms could be available to achieve better planning of legislation.

Another area that the Committee should consider is the balance of work on the Floor of the House and upstairs in Committee. That was touched on by Jopling, but only at the margins. I feel strongly that the work of Standing Committees never gets the attention or credit that it deserves. Select Committees get some recognition, but it is rare for Standing Committees or some of the Scrutiny Committees to get any attention whatever. Perhaps if the media feel that they have extra slots available because of the changes to Prime Minister's Questions they will turn their attention to Committee work, because those of us who have been here for any time know that much valuable work goes on in Committees. Many hon. Members work in Committees, but that work goes without recognition.

I also hope that the Committee will look at the other main role of Parliament—holding Ministers to account. The changes to Prime Minister's Questions will be beneficial, but I do not want to go into them this evening, not least because there is an Adjournment debate on that subject next week. However, yesterday, more questions were asked. There were more opportunities to follow up. There were more serious questions, from both sides of the House, and, indeed, more serious answers.

There is still scope for discussion on further changes: for example, considering the role of open or closed questions, or the period of notice for the tabling of questions. The Committee may wish to look at that. On departmental questions, there are other areas that could be considered: for example, whether there should be a facility to request the Speaker to allow a longer period for supplementaries on a question on a particularly important or topical issue.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On the delicate matter of not wanting to tell the Speaker how to do her job, should we not air the question about the acceptability of private notice questions? There is most rigorous examination of any attempt to table a private notice question, yet it affords a serious, continuous follow-up on an important topical matter.

Mrs. Taylor

I agree that we need to consider all these matters, but private notice questions have to be used for serious matters only. We have to remember that, whenever we allow time for one issue, we are taking it away from something else. The balance has to be considered extremely carefully.

I hope that all hon. Members will agree that the Committee should consider improved ways of scrutinising delegated legislation, be it statutory instruments or European legislation, or other improvements. There is scope. I know that work has been done by other Committees. I hope that it can be looked at quickly.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

The right hon. Lady mentioned European legislation. Her party has shown a zeal to agree to potentially controversial matters already. The current methods of scrutiny, with European Standing Committees A and B, leave much to be desired, because they scrutinise regulations or directives very late in their legislative passage in the House and in Europe. Will the Committee seriously consider involving the House in European legislation, particularly at the draft stage, at an earlier point?

Mr. Skinner

What a difference a defeat makes.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Member for Fylde was part of a Government who did not change this area. I remind him that Committees in the previous Parliament came up with some recommendations, and some of us gave evidence to the effect that certain approaches should change in the future.

The Committee could look at the set-piece debates that we have: the Queen's Speech, the number of days that we spend on the Budget, the number on the armed forces and on the estimates. These may be right. We have seen some flexibility, but surely it is right for the Committee to consider whether we are making the best use of parliamentary time. I hope this will be an opportunity to take stock.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

One of the things that struck me immediately as a new Member, is the number of empty Benches during many of our debates. I have continually to decide between dealing with the many pieces of correspondence from my constituents and wanting to be here on their behalf, listening to and taking part in the debate. I have been told that it is frowned upon to work quietly during the debate. I should be grateful if the Committee would look at that and clarify it for all hon. Members.

Mrs. Taylor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for opening up the next theme that the Committee should consider, which is how hon. Members can organise their working lives, on which there has been much comment, especially from new Members.

If our constituents see us speaking in or listening to a debate in the Chamber, they believe that we are working, but if we are not in the Chamber they tend to believe that we are not working. I have already said that we should re-evaluate, or have others re-evaluate, Committee work. I feel strongly about that.

There must also be some recognition of constituency work. Many of our constituents want us to be in two places at once. We cannot be, and we should not be, defensive about that, but we should design our parliamentary timetable with those dual roles in mind. We could do more in that regard. That is particularly important for non-London Members. Constituency Fridays have been a great success and we should see whether we can improve on them in the future.

I am glad that we can have a recess next week. Many new Members are concerned about the impact of the sittings of the House on their families. The Whitsun recess is the only one that ever coincides with the schools half-term, so I am particularly glad that we have been able to preserve that next week. That is another point that we can consider when it comes to the programme.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Taylor

I can anticipate what my hon. Friend is about to say.

Mr. Connarty

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, particularly given her origins north of the border. The Whitsun recess does not coincide with the Scottish schools holiday, and nor does a large part of the summer recess. Most of the school summer holiday in Scotland is over before Scottish Members can return to their children.

Mrs. Taylor

The October half-term in Scotland sometimes coincides with the recess, but they never coincide in England and Wales, so we shall have to do some balancing acts there.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Taylor

No, I am sorry, but I must move on.

The fourth area that could be considered is not a priority, but it has been raised, particularly by new Members: it is the style and the symbolism that is associated with Parliament, which we have seen in the past few weeks. There is a feeling that, while it is good to reinforce our parliamentary traditions, we might be able to modify some aspects of them without any loss of ceremony or dignity.

Many practical problems arise with new Members not knowing colleagues or Members from other parties or the names of their constituencies, and ideas have been put forward on that. It would be unfortunate for the Committee to get bogged down in that matter at the expense of examining the basic role of Parliament, but it would be right at least to consider it in due course. [Interruption.] People will disagree, but that is why we will have a Committee to make recommendations.

Many of the changes that the Committee will consider will interact, and working on that Committee will be a serious commitment both in terms of time and responsibility. The House responded well to the Nolan recommendations. The special Select Committee operated to a tight schedule and worked extremely hard to bring about change. I hope that that will happen again with this modernisation Committee.

I am delighted to see so much interest in the House this evening. That is the best sign that we have had in many years that there is a serious intention to modernise this place, and I hope that we do not miss this window of opportunity.

7.53 pm
Mr. Alastair Goodlad (Eddisbury)

Conservative Members welcome the opportunity of an early debate on parliamentary procedure. Like the President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), we are eager to listen to the views of colleagues.

Parliament has for centuries performed a role in debating and improving legislation, in holding the Executive to account and as the forum for debates of national importance. Conservative Members are determined that Parliament, and particularly the House of Commons, should retain its central role in our political and national life. To do so, our procedures sometimes need reform. If it is clear that change is necessary or desirable, we shall support it. But if our institutions and procedures are working well, we shall defend them. The Conservative party is a pragmatic party, and we shall offer constructive opposition.

Those considerations have animated and will continue to guide our approach to reforming the House of Commons and our response to any recommendations which may be made by the proposed Select Committee on modernisation.

As the right hon. Lady said, some of the most significant reforms of Parliament have taken place during the past 18 years. The previous Government animated the establishment of the departmental Select Committees in 1979—perhaps the most important transfer of power from Government to Parliament this century.

Mr. Skinner

I cannot stand the excitement.

Mr. Goodlad

The hon. Gentleman persists in treating serious matters with levity, just as he treats trivial matters with his own brand of long-winded portentousness.

Mr. Skinner

Come on, Duracell.

Mr. Goodlad

The House has no escape from the hon. Gentleman, who continues to test the tolerance for which it is famous.

Mr. Skinner

I have got the right hon. Gentleman wound up.

Mr. Goodlad

I will now wind down, unless the hon. Gentleman wishes to delay the House even further.

Those Committees examine in great detail the way in which each Government Department spends its money, implements Government decisions and the policy that is followed. The reports are debated regularly on the Floor of the House. Professor Hennessy, the constitutional expert, said: I rate the establishment of the so-called departmentally related Commons Select Committees in 1979 as not just the most significant parliamentary development of the post-war period, but the single most important clawback in terms of the relevant influence of the legislature and the executive since the Balfour reforms of 1902. We shall obviously consider any proposals that come forward in connection with the Select Committees with the greatest care.

The television broadcasts which were introduced more than seven years ago were intended to give people a clearer idea of how Parliament works. Whether the way in which they have been used by the broadcaster has had that effect is a matter on which opinions may vary, but we are where we are and, if we wish to move we can move.

Many of the recommendations of the Jopling Committee set up in 1991 to examine the sittings of the House are now firmly in place. We work more civilised hours and we have set aside constituency days. More time has been set aside for private Members' business and the House now spends longer debating Select Committee reports.

Last year, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition proposed reforms which would help Parliament to scrutinise legislation still further. Most significantly, he suggested that detailed proposals for legislation be prepared not just for the next Session but in draft for the Session after that. That would allow Select Committees time to take evidence and report on Bills, and would give Parliament a more positive and forward-looking role.

Those are just a few of the reforms that were taken through the House in the previous Session to improve the work of Parliament. The Nolan committee was established in 1994 to assist in the maintenance of the highest standards in public life. It has produced two reports, and has resulted in improvements, such as bringing Ministers within the scope of the advisory committee on business appointments, an extension of the ombudsman's powers, a code of practice for the staff of quangos and more consultation between local quangos and councils. The third report, which will review local government, is due to be published this summer.

The right hon. Lady has raised a number of fresh matters, and that is extremely welcome. I hope that all hon. Members agree that we want to improve the quality of legislation, to hold the Government to account, and to make the best use of our parliamentary time. If the reforms put before the Committee and the House achieve those aims, we will support them and suggest how they might be improved.

Ministerial accountability was reviewed by the previous Government and Parliament. The review was endorsed by the Public Service Select Committee, and a resolution on ministerial accountability was drafted with the full co-operation and support of other parties and was passed by the House.

It is suggested that certain Bills should roll over into the following Session. We shall work with the Government to develop that proposal. It is also suggested that there should be more consultation on draft Bills before they pass through the House. Significant moves have already been made in that direction in the past 18 years, and we shall work with the Government on those proposals to see whether the approach can be further developed.

Progress has been made to remove out-dated Acts from the statute book. Under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, the Government can place an order before Parliament to amend or repeal legislation that has become burdensome. We shall examine the Government's proposals to audit out-dated legislation and consider whether they would be beneficial.

Suggestions have been made that we should change the structure of the parliamentary year. We want to see what issues emerge from that—the timing of recesses, working hours and so on—before we offer any comment, but we shall give careful consideration to the details of the Government's proposals when we have seen them. We welcome the promise by the Leader of the House of a Government memorandum for the Committee once it has been established.

There are also suggestions that departmental Select Committees should have new powers to confirm public appointments, such as the heads of the next step agencies. We shall await further details, but it is our belief that constitutional accountability must remain with Ministers. Likewise, we await further details of the suggestion that the operation of the Opposition would be made more effective if civil servants were attached to senior figures.

We have reservations, however, on three particular points. First, the Government may seek to introduce a business committee to timetable legislation, which has traditionally been dealt with through the usual channels. The system has proved itself over the years: it has worked reasonably well. We accept that the Government have to steer their business through the House, but I am inclined to think that, if the usual channels cannot reach an agreement about the legislative programme, the final decision should be taken by the whole House. I would take some persuading that it should be taken by a small committee.

The second point relates to the Committee stage of constitutional Bills. We have reservations about the Government's intention to deal with some clauses of constitutional Bills away from the Floor of the House. I envisage problems with that approach, because what for some hon. Members may be a technical detail may for others be an important constitutional principle and not a mere technicality.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

If the right hon. Gentleman is so keen for constitutional matters to be taken on the Floor of the House, what about using Tuesday and Thursday mornings to do so?

Mr. Goodlad

I certainly hope that the Committee will consider that. We have pointed out some of the difficulties of the broad-brush approach. Those who are versed in these matters, as the right hon. Lady has been for some time, know that the devil is very much in the detail.

The third point relates to the announcement from Downing street of the changes to Prime Minister's Question Time. Many hon. Members from all parties have made clear their distaste for the arbitrary way in which the change was introduced. It is clear that the manner of the announcement was inappropriate and sits uneasily with the Prime Minister's comments in his speech to the Charter 88 seminar on parliamentary reform in May 1996. He said: the lesson of previous parliamentary change is that it has to be carried out with care and sensitivity…The rights of backbenchers have to be protected.

Mr. Skinner

In the past 18 years and before that, changes were made to departmental questions and questions generally. We should put this business in context. The right hon. Gentleman may recall that the Tory Government made a dramatic change. We used to have 20 minutes for Common Market Questions at 3.10 pm after Foreign Office Questions. That allowed me and hon. Members on both sides of the House to ask questions directly about the Common Market. When the Common Market became an embarrassment for the Tory Government, they did not move Common Market Questions to another day: they got rid of it altogether without any consultation or agreement. It is a bit rich for Tory ex-Ministers to talk about consultation, when they got rid of a potentially embarrassing 20 minutes completely.

Mr. Goodlad

The more latitude that the Government allow the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to deploy his case in questions elsewhere, the more welcome it will be to us.

I shall return to the Prime Minister's views. He said: the lesson of previous parliamentary change is that it has to be carried out with care and sensitivity…The rights of backbenchers have to be protected. They will understandably be wary of changes which appear to be advocated simply to make the job of government easier. The decision to change Prime Minister's Questions was made without reference to the forthcoming Select Committee on modernisation. Moreover, such a proposal was rejected by the Select Committee on Procedure in 1995. I believe that the proposal should have gone to the new Select Committee on modernisation, should still do so, and probably will.

The Labour party's manifesto asserted that better scrutiny of Bills and better accountability of Ministers are desirable: nobody would quarrel with that. But it is up to hon. Members, rather than mere institutional arrangements, to hold Ministers to account and to scrutinise legislation. I am sure that the failings of the Opposition in the previous Parliament in scrutinising Bills—there certainly were failings—will not be repeated by the Opposition in the present Parliament.

We agree with the proposition that no one political party should dictate changes to parliamentary procedure, and that Parliament itself must own that process. There is clearly a danger that, when a political party has a substantial majority in the House, as at present, the interests of Parliament as a whole could be put at risk. I am sure that the right hon. Lady will restrain any tendency towards the arrogance of office that may from time to time be exhibited by her ministerial colleagues. Ultimately, it is up to the House to decide how we should conduct our affairs.

I trust that the Government will take seriously the deliberations and decisions of the Select Committee on modernisation that we are about to set up. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will consider its conclusions on their merits rather than on party political lines, and I hope that the Government will make no further announcements that rightly belong with the House. I am confident that the right hon. Lady, who has great experience in these matters—as did her predecessor, Tony Newton, to whom I pay tribute as she did the other day—will be the protector of the rights, privileges and duties of the House.

8.10 pm
Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has given a number of pointers indicating the way in which our procedures can be changed. I want to add to them.

I think that the most important development for the current Parliament is the number of Government Back Benchers. We now have 418, a number unprecedented in modern times, and we must make some use of them. They are willing, able and extremely well qualified to add to the quality of our debates and our legislation, but some of our procedures do not allow for that. My right hon. Friend spoke of better legislation, and mentioned the record number of draft Bills. That is an important point, because we now have a large number of people to examine those Bills.

Normally, in Standing Committees, Government Back Benchers are asked to be quiet so that the legislation can go through quickly. That may be all right when the Government have a narrow majority and do not know whether they will be able to put the legislation through, but these Back Benchers can be used to improve the quality of that legislation. There is no reason why such a large number should remain silent—and, in any event, it will not be possible to keep them silent. There are too many of them, and not enough of the jobs to which Back Benchers used to aspire in the past. We must provide jobs that will be useful and meaningful, and will benefit the legislation.

Mr. Gill

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 5, in which members of his party recommend that no one should serve on a Select Committee who has any declarable financial interest in the subject of the Committee's responsibility?

The right hon. Gentleman talks of employing the talents and experience of new Members, and I agree that that is desirable, but is it not slightly contradictory to say to those people—who have brought new talents and experience to the House—that they should not serve on Committees, where they will possibly have the greatest contribution to make? Does the right hon. Gentleman approve of the situation that seems to be developing? It appears that our Committees will be composed of people who have no expertise in the subjects involved, and will therefore be at the mercy of civil servants.

Mr. Sheldon

It will clearly depend on the nature of the interest involved; but, as I have not seen the early-day motion, I do not want to comment on it.

The way in which we have produced legislation recently is shameful. If hon. Members visit Somerset house, they will see that, in the last century, one book of financial legislation was produced per year, or perhaps in two or three years—until the past few years, for which there is a whole shelf of legislation for each year. Even more recently, the legislation has filled several shelves. Financial legislation has been pouring out at an immense rate, and the House has not been looking at it; but we now have people who can make some contribution.

Anyone who has been involved in a Standing Committee will know that, when it comes to draft legislation, there are always matters that Members of Parliament can raise which the drafters had not thought of. There is a different way of thinking about such matters. Given the quality of our new Members, I am sure that they will be able to make improvements, and to do work that has been waiting to be done. I look forward to the establishment of many more special Standing Committees. We have people who are able and anxious to operate them, and I agree with my right hon. Friend that we should proceed in that way.

I am all in favour of tradition, as long as it does not interfere with our work. Our traditions go back 700 years, and I consider that a plus; but, when they do interfere, we have got rid of them. If there are some traditions of which I am not aware, or on which I have not concentrated enough, by all means let us change them, but we have benefited from the way in which the country has progressed, and we should continue to do so.

We have made a real mess of our financial year, and it is probably in that area that we can make the biggest change of all. We used to have the Budget in the spring; it would become an Act of Parliament by August, and the expenditure statement would be made in the autumn. It was felt, however, that expenditure and revenue should be brought together, so that we could say, "If you want this expenditure, you must incur this increase in taxation." It was a brilliant idea—no one can disagree with that—but, for obvious reasons, it did not happen.

The Government decide expenditure levels. It has never been possible for the House, and Back Benchers in particular, to say, "Yes, let us put a penny on income tax if we want to give something to education"—which is what the Liberals want—or, "Let us reduce income tax by so much, and reduce expenditure by so much." We could never operate a trade-off of that kind, but, without such a trade-off, the idea of bringing together revenue and expenditure was nonsense. All we did was have the Queen's Speech in November, followed two weeks later by the Budget, followed by seven months during which the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not make a speech in the House.

That is absurd. For as long as we see that we shall not be able to debate revenue and expenditure together, because Back Benchers will never have the right to increase expenditure or taxation, we can say that the autumn Budget has not been a success, and that we must adopt a more sensible arrangement—which means having the Budget statement in the spring, and debating clauses of general significance on the Floor of the House and the technical stuff in a Standing Committee. That arrangement was devised by the then Government in 1967. I remember that, under kin Macleod, we spent a day and a half in the Standing Committee discussing the temperature of Committee Room 10. It was brilliantly done, but it demonstrated that the whole House needed to be involved.

The present system is sensible. Matters of critical, general and observable importance that involve everyone—matters such as income tax and value added tax—are debated on the Floor of the House, while the technical aspects are debated in Standing Committee. I think that more issues should be debated on the Floor of the House, but I have a particular interest in that regard.

Attendance in the Chamber is a serious matter. Dick Crossman is responsible for the present position, because he devised a system to get rid of the count. Before 1967, if there were not 40 Members in the Chamber, the House had to adjourn within four minutes. The enormous advantage of that system was that there was always a body of Members in the Chamber. I know that everyone has much more constituency correspondence to deal with now, and we are unlikely to return to the old arrangement; but that is the difference between the House as it was then, and the House as it is now.

For debates on important matters, it is important to have hon. Members cheering others on or being prepared to show that something is wrong. However, we have to deal with constituency matters, and we now have a free post, free telephones, secretaries and television in offices. More people than ever are probably watching our debates on television, but they are not participating. It is voices in the present that electrify the House and such electrification is what makes it the place that it is. That happens only at Prime Minister's Question Time and on one or two other special occasions. It used to be much more common, and I hope that we can find some way to improve matters.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

It is pointless sitting here when there is so much constituency work and Select Committee and Standing Committee work as well as other work to be done. Nine hon. Members in 10 or 99 out of a hundred are unable to take part in debates because so many wish to participate. Sitting here does not seem to be the most useful way for an hon. Member to use his time.

Mr. Sheldon

I agree. There is much work to do. We must see to correspondence and telephone calls and we look after our constituents in a way that our predecessors did not. However, something is being lost in that process, and anything that can be done to enable us to return to some aspect of what we had would be valuable.

Standing Order 20 debates are at the discretion of the Speaker. Madam Speaker rightly decides whether a specific and important matter should have urgent consideration. If she decides that they deserve priority, they are debated. In the past few years, there has been an increase in such debates, and we are grateful to Madam Speaker for making that improvement. The procedure had almost fallen into disuse until the past few years, and it has brought alive some of the important issues. Such rights are important, and whatever can be done to allow them to continue deserves our encouragement.

Select Committees are enormously important. Their great value is that they bring together people from all parts of the House to look at the facts. It is astonishing how well people can work together in areas of common interest. I shall give an extreme example: it is not typical by any means. The Public Accounts Committee operates like that. We looked at all the privatisations. There were enormous differences in Committee, but our remit was to see whether privatisation was carried out efficiently and gave proper value for money. The Government decision is not questioned. Such operations are evident in other Select Committees. Their members look at the facts and try to find how a process can be made more efficient. They may say, "The Government have got this wrong and should be doing more." A Select Committee's enormous advantage is being able to look at the facts and bring them to the attention of Ministers.

I have mentioned the areas in which I hope there will be some improvements. Obviously, we must continue to change to the advantage of hon. Members and that of our constituents.

8.23 pm
Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

In following the speech by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), I should like to mention one of the old traditions of the House, that in debates each speaker picked up points that the previous speaker had made. I should like to add to what the right hon. Gentleman said about the problems and the development of taxation and tax legislation. He will recall that, just before Parliament dissolved for the election, we approved procedures to allow tax simplification Bills to be introduced to try to reduce the many orders on tax law. I hope that the Leader of the House will allow those procedures to operate as soon as possible.

I congratulate the Leader of the House on her appointment. I shall attempt to be non-partisan, with the exception of one matter, which I shall mention later. Many hon. Members want to play a political game, but many of us are honestly interested in trying to improve the way that Parliament operates and legislation is scrutinised. The right hon. Lady has heard me say many times that I have spent 14 years trying to drag our procedures screaming into the 20th century. If she can continue with that tradition into the 21st century, I shall be delighted.

We must proceed only with the agreement of the whole House. When that is not achieved, attempts at modernisation will frequently fail—the introduction of morning sittings in the 1960s is an illustration of that.

I shall now turn to the partisan matter, but I shall not dwell on it, because it is to be debated. The Leader of the House was ill advised to introduce the new format for Prime Minister's Question Time without consultation or consideration and against the recommendation of the Procedure Committee. On that Committee, four of her hon. Friends, one of whom is now a Minister, agreed with the recommendation that a new format was not to the advantage of the House. We shall return to that matter.

Mr. Connarty

The hon. Gentleman speaks about procedure and consultation. Does he not think that the new format is a vast improvement on the turmoil over the past five years during Prime Minister's questions?

Sir Peter Emery

The Procedure Committee made suggestions for improving Prime Minister's Question Time. However, they were not debated, because it was not the wish of the then Leader of the Opposition to move in the way that he has now moved. I have read to the House the letter that he wrote to the Committee.

The value of Prime Minister's Question Time derives from open-ended questions. In a debate with me on television, the new leader of the parliamentary Labour party spoke about questions in depth. When that happens, it will do away with the open-ended question and it will be an entirely different way to proceed. Judging by press comments on Prime Minister's questions, the new format is no better than the old one.

On two occasions, the Procedure Committee made recommendations about the timetabling of Bills. First, it recommended a legislation business committee. When that was debated, it faced the strongest opposition from all parts of the House that I have ever known. All the Front-Bench Labour spokesmen opposed it, and there was a one-line whip. The Government payroll vote turned out in full to defeat it. I remember that because it was debated on my birthday, and it was a birthday present of no great value after a great deal of work by the Procedure Committee.

The Committee took another sheet of paper and made further suggestions about the way that every part of legislation should be considered by Committees. There is something wrong when only a third or even less of a Bill has been considered upstairs before returning to the House. We must find a way to overcome that. Perhaps the Leader of the House will ask the Committee that she proposes to set up to look at the final suggestion by the Procedure Committee. It set out a method by which such a problem could be dealt with in Committee by ensuring that every part of a Bill would be considered before it was reported. That is of considerable importance in improving the manner in which the House deals with legislation.

I ask the Leader of the House to look again at the work of the European Standing Committees. The Procedure Committee originally recommended that there should be five Committees, but only two were appointed. They have not functioned well, because the amount of work that two Committees have had to do on a range of subjects has been much too much for the people who have had to serve on them. We suggested five Committees on different subjects so that we could build up expertise on tax and trade in one Committee, agriculture in another, transport and other factors in another, and so on. We could have encouraged specialists on those subjects to serve on those European Standing Committees. At present, we almost have to drag people into serving on European Standing Committees because it is such a drudge. They should be a way of using the talents of the House better than they have used before.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin

As someone who served in the last Parliament for five years on European Standing Committee B, I endorse what my right hon. Friend says. Does he agree that there is something rather daft about a legislative process in which we discuss draft documents before Ministers go off to debate matters in the Council of Ministers and we never receive a report so that we can give a view on whether the deal that Ministers have concluded is right or wrong for this country? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we had more Committees, we could have time for a proper report from Ministers and time to cross-examine them so that they were properly brought to account on how they delivered what they told the Committee they would?

Sir Peter Emery

I accept what my hon. Friend says. There is no way of doing that if we have only two Committees, because they are permanently full of work and cannot check on what has been achieved. It would be to the benefit of the House and the country to know how the regulations were dealt with by Ministers in Europe.

I recommend to the Leader of the House other suggestions by the Procedure Committee on the way in which European business is dealt with. We went to the extent of recommending stronger links with the European Parliament. The one way in which the House of Commons can have influence on the way in which European legislation is passed is for it to influence the European Committees which deal with it. There could be a link between our Select Committees and European Committees so that European Committees know the views of the House. That does not happen at present.

I have suggested the appointment of—to use a European term—a rapporteur to each of the departmental Select Committees, whose job would be to be in touch with rapporteurs of similar Committees in the European Parliament so that we know what is going on. We should have a link so that we can influence their decisions at the stage of drawing up reports, not after the rapporteur has made his report. That would give us some input into regulations that come out of Brussels such as we have never been able to achieve.

Other recommendations of the Procedure Committee, which again have not been debated, relate to the way in which we should scrutinise statutory instruments. It is—I was going to say criminal—lax beyond belief that, in the last Session of Parliament, we saw more than 2,200 pieces of secondary legislation. We spent all our time on the 22 Bills, but 26,000 pieces of secondary legislation slipped through with hardly any consideration. We have recommended a sifting Committee which could examine secondary legislation much more closely than we have ever done before. I hope that the Leader of the House will consider that in full.

I am a traditionalist and I do not mind admitting it, but I agree with what the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne said. Where the traditions of the House are useless and nonsense, let us not carry them forward. For example, do we really have to troop down to the House of Lords the first moment that a new Parliament meets for permission to elect a Speaker? Surely, as the primary Parliament of this nation, we should have the right to elect a Speaker. Then let us report to the monarch in the traditional way, and seek her approval. It is unnecessary for us to seek permission.

Mr. Maxton

Will the right hon. Gentleman extend his argument and ask why a Government elected by the people of this country should traipse down the Corridor to listen to the Queen tell us what we are going to do?

Sir Peter Emery

I happen to believe that some of the traditions of this country, which are admired throughout the world, attract tourism and are part of the strength and standing of Britain in the world, should be maintained. That is one, and I would not wish to see it abolished. I hope that there is some support for that position even on the Government Front Bench.

Mr. Winnick

As the right hon. Gentleman says, the Procedure Committee in the last Parliament made a recommendation which the Conservative Government would not accept—that we should not ask permission to elect a Speaker. I trust that the Labour Government—more radical than the last—will implement that recommendation. The right hon. Gentleman was honest enough to say that he was a traditionalist. Should not the House be a workplace? Why the wigs, why the gowns? What purpose do they serve? Parliament is not a tourist attraction. With the greatest respect to you, Madam Speaker, when the Deputy Speakers are in the Chair they wear modern dress, and they command the same respect as the Speaker. It is not necessary to dress up just because something happened 400 or 500 years ago. There is no need for the Clerks to wear gowns.

Sir Peter Emery

If I may say so, Madam Speaker, I do not consider the way you look in the Chair as dressing up. You bring dignity to this place, and do it with great charm.

We must help Scottish Members in a way in which my Government did not. It is right and proper that we should arrange the summer sittings to allow Scottish Members of Parliament to spend some time with their family before their children go back to school. If that means that the House has to come back for two weeks—say, the second and third weeks of September—to complete some business, it would not be a bad thing and would accommodate an area of the country which is pretty set upon by the timing of the sittings of the House at present.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)


Sir Peter Emery

I give way to my friend.

Mr. Pike

Apart from Scotland, many parts of Lancashire and other parts of the country have traditional wakes weeks. Burnley's holidays, for example, are the first fortnight in July. Those parts of the country are equally affected by the problem of the timing of the summer recess.

Sir Peter Emery

I knew that I would not have to say much about Lancashire because my hon. Friend, who has been a member of my Committee, has always stood up well and properly for the rights of Lancashire.

Might I also suggest to the President of the Council that she should look at Command Paper 397 which sets out the work of the Procedure Committee of the previous Parliament in which a number of her hon. Friends participated? That report contains a number of extra thoughts and ideas that are worthy of consideration. I hope that the new Committee, it will not be known as the Jopling Committee, but perhaps the Taylor Committee or whatever, will give some further thought to that report.

May I offer a revolutionary thought?

Sir Patrick Cormack

Be careful.

Sir Peter Emery

I would like to advocate the setting up of a parliamentary television channel. I believe that there is much more interest among the public about what happens in this House than we know. I accept that it might not be possible to show the work of the Select Committees at the time that they are sitting, but reports at other times of their work would be of interest to many of our constituents. They would also be interested in this type of debate, which would attract no attention on the normal television channels.

There is some considerable merit in us considering the establishment of a parliamentary television channel, even if it has to be managed or paid for by the House. It would be a great service to our constituents because it would enable them to see to a greater extent the work of Parliament. The broadcast of Prime Minister's Question Time gives a wrong impression of the work of the House and it would be useful if we could overcome it.

I wish the right hon. Lady well for the Committee that she sets up. I hope that perhaps I can make some contribution to it. If it operates according to the concept of working not in a party political manner on either side but for the greater benefit of the House as a whole, it will be a success.

8.42 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth P. Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I had contemplated making a speech of four and a half hours on procedure, but somehow I suspect that I might not be terribly popular. I will therefore be as brief as I can, but I believe that this happens to be one of the most important debates that we could have.

The procedures of this place are not just a matter of arcane debate, but the methods by which we pass laws. I hope that, when we come to debate any changes, we shall seriously consider not only what has gone before but the hazards that we sometimes face in seeking to modernise without totally understanding what we are doing.

For example, may I point out that the House actually sits fewer hours than it did before the Jopling report recommendations were accepted? It has abandoned the privilege, and an extremely hard-fought privilege, of Back-Bench Members having the right to introduce private Member's notions on a Friday and have votes on them in exchange for a number of hours of debate on a Wednesday morning. It is perfectly true that we were told, "Give up Fridays and you'll still have the same number of hours of debate," but it is also true that we do not have votes on Wednesday morning.

Individual constituency matters may be raised on a Wednesday morning, but, because we do not have such votes on Friday, we shall no longer be able to influence legislation such as that passed previously on abortion law and homosexual reform. Many of the Bills that were introduced in the first Parliament that I enjoyed as a Member would have faced considerable difficulties if an exchange had then been made between Fridays with voting rights for Wednesday morning debates. It is important that we realise that.

On the European Committees, it is not good enough simply to say that we should staff five more such Committees. Of course one could and one should, but Members must turn up and do the work. The House has to give those Committees the right, and not an alternative right, to bring a resolution to the Floor of the House and have it debated. At the moment, it does not matter how much work we do upstairs in those European Committees—no decision reached in Committee is brought back to the Floor of the House and voted on. No matter how strongly one may feel about any matter, that cannot influence the final result. It does not matter whether one has 10,000 connections with the European Parliament—no one will take any more notice than they do at the present time. It is important to realise that.

Above all, I would say to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that we should explain to people that one of the problems in the previous Parliament was its parliamentarians. We skip over that. If people sit in Committees and do not listen to what is said or take part in the amending resolutions, it does not matter how often we change where we sit or how many electronic toys we have. If that happens, it does not matter how many people we get rid of in exchange for a number of gadgets that somehow give the impression that we have been modernised. If we do not do the work, if we do not listen, participate or check what is happening at Government level as well as every other level, the House of Commons is the poorer for it.

I must also ask my right hon. Friend to look first at the role of Government. Look at why parliamentary draftsmen are not given enough time to come up with effective and properly drafted legislation. Look at why so many Committees in the House have to deal not only with existing legislation but with a thousand amendments tabled by Ministers who are panicked at the final moment when they discover suddenly that the legislation says something different from what they expected it to say.

Those are important matters, and they will not be altered by saying to people they now have all sorts of new toys that they did not have before and that therefore they must have better control over the legislature. That is not what happens. Back Benchers have to look at everything that happens. They have to read it, and they must be very careful about understanding what it says. That must be done irrespective of the Government who are in power.

The House is very well served by servants of all types at every level. The people who service the House day by day in all its Departments are of an astonishingly high standard. We must stop treating them as though they were pawns to be moved around a chessboard without consultation, without understanding their problems and without allowing them a response. We must not think that it does not matter if we decide to do different hours and introduce different arrangements. We must not think that that is of no importance to the people who work here and who, after all, enjoy a lower level of consultation than we would accept in the worst sweatshop factory anywhere in our own constituencies. I find that offensive and unacceptable. I will not sit quietly by and see that happen.

I hope that it will be accepted by the House that even those of us who seem to be subject to the agist attack that we have been here a long time may have the odd word to say. We may not get in very often and we may take up rather more time than some of our colleagues would like, but we will have things to say about the procedures of the House of Commons because those very procedures, those Standing Orders—those very things that people do not read—are important. That failure to read means that some do not understand that sitting in a Committee does not mean just getting up and reading out a brief from a pressure group. It is not a matter of appearing whenever it suits someone, without considering in detail what is in front of him or her. It means doing a lot of work and considering the implications, and certainly the effects, of what we are doing.

Let me tell my right hon. Friend that some of us crusty, ancient, unhelpful Members, anti-social as we may be, will be around to make sure that the House of Commons still preserves the rights of Back Benchers.

8.48 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), because I agree with every word she said. I hope to be able to pick up on one or two of the points that she made.

I agree with the hon. Lady about the role of private Members. I first came to the House in 1974. Perhaps I should explain to some hon. Members who might not be aware of it that I am the prize retread, because I was kicked out again and earned my living with a real job for 18 years before I came back in 1992. I agree with the hon. Lady that in that period there has been a diminution in the way in which the private Member can produce substantial and important legislation and take it through the House.

The role of the private Member's Bill must be re-examined with considerable urgency. Although I very much welcome what the Leader of the House has said this evening and the intentions that she has expressed, it is an area about which hon. Members on both sides of the House share some concern. We seem to have pushed all those Bills into Fridays, when Government Whips can dispose of them all too easily when the shutters fall.

In response to the points made by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, my suggestion is that, instead of Wednesday mornings being taken up with constituency and other matters on which there are no votes—and which I know, from having participated, are good debates but with just a limited number of hon. Members involved—they should be used for private Member's Bills, when we are all here and can vote substantially on substantial issues.

The matters now taken on Wednesday mornings could be moved to Monday mornings. Those of us who want to raise particular questions, particular constituency interests or participate in a wider-ranging debate involving a small number of Members could attend on a Monday morning. We could get through such business on a Monday morning effectively and without the need for votes. It is a simple, practical suggestion which I offer to the Leader of the House.

The right hon. Lady has come to the House openly and honestly today. On behalf of the Government, she has said that it is a moment in time when this great institution should look at the way in which it operates to see whether we can measure up to our great history and our great potential. In that context, I looked up Edmund Burke, which is always useful: Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich echoed that. We are a deliberative Assembly. Parliament has a glorious past; it is a glorious beast—but it is glorious because it has managed to move with the times, not because it has become stuck in a particular era. It is perfectly true that we have moved in technology, in economy and in culture, but we have not moved as fast or as far as the body politic. Surely that must be the question now hanging over the institution of Parliament.

During recent weeks, we have heard a great deal about the sovereignty of Parliament. The sovereignty of Parliament is far more at risk from getting out of step with the general body politic of the United Kingdom than it would ever be from threats from Brussels or anywhere else. The pace of progress has been far faster outside this place than it has been inside it. I ask the Leader of the House to look carefully at the way in which the House will have to change to reflect the situation in the world outside.

We are no longer a two-party state. To a considerable extent, we are still a two-party Parliament, but ever since the 1950s the majority of people in this country have not voted for the Government; they have not even necessarily voted for the two main parties in many parts of the country. During the past few days, I have been amused to see Conservative Members popping up like jacks-in-the-box complaining that the Government do not have a mandate because they got the support of only 43 per cent. of those who voted. I do not remember hearing them complaining when the Thatcher Governments were elected on similar proportions but did not have a mandate.

Just this morning, the newly elected chairman of the 1922 Committee made such a complaint. I welcome him to the ranks of those who support electoral reform, although I am not sure whether it will be of much help to the cause to have his support.

As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) said in a notable, passionate maiden speech, the people of Cornwall managed to become the first Celtic country to be a Tory-free zone. We were followed later by Wales and Scotland. Now, members of the Conservative party in those areas are complaining that they have no influence over the election of the next Leader of the Opposition. I have news for them—whoever it is will not be Leader of the Opposition for long, because we shall take over the opposition role. In the meantime, it is an obvious absurdity that we have an electoral system in which a substantial number of votes in the Celtic countries are not reflected in the House. That is also true across the country. Until 1 May, large areas of the country were not represented in this place if people happened to vote for the Labour party. That cannot be right.

I welcome the fact that the Government have made it absolutely clear that they will move forward and look at the whole question of the status of this elected Assembly, how it operates and how representative it is. The Home Secretary's statement in the debate on Monday—that there will be rapid progress on an electoral commission and that its remit and membership will be decided before the summer recess—is a great step forward.

I am a beneficiary of the first-past-the-post system. When I first came to this House, I had a majority of nine, after six recounts. On the morning of 2 May, my majority had risen to almost 14,000. Therefore, I do not complain out of self-interest. The British people have a right to complain that they are not getting the elected Assembly to which they are entitled, and that we come here with a damaged mandate.

Of course, the symbolism is attractive to tourists, but for goodness sake let us not worry about whether the Clerks wear wigs or whether we have to walk up and down a Corridor—that is peripheral; that is a triviality. The key issue is whether we are doing our job properly.

The trenchant contributions, from both sides of the House, on the extent to which we are currently scrutinising European legislation are extremely important. I sat on the Procedure Committee and we did some work on that matter. I am staggered by the weight of work load suffered by some of our colleagues on Committees. It cannot go on, because our constituents are getting a bad bargain as a result.

I very much welcomed the speech of the right hon. Member for Ashton—under—Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. I thought his expert contribution to our discussion about how we timetable the taxation and expenditure plans of the nation was absolutely right. We should consider that matter carefully.

The very shape of this place must be considered carefully. On a previous occasion, I opened a debate, on behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, and pointed out that, were it not for the historical accident that Edward VI had a redundant chapel available for the House of Commons of the day to sit in, we would not have the absurd adversarial system we have in this place. Similarly, if the French had not had the redundant royal tennis court, they might have ended up like us and we might have ended up like them. The Americans would have followed suit.

We have to think carefully about how this place operates. It is absurd that so many Labour Members are trying to get on to the Labour Benches—and not just absurd, but uncomfortable. We must find a way of utilising the Cross Benches: bring in the carpenters and make this not only a better representative Assembly, but one in which we can operate to more effect.

What about the usual channels? As Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, I am a new, third major channel in this place. However, on behalf of Back Benchers and the minority parties, I have to say that the usual channels are a great mystery. I am sure that we could bring more out into the open and that more could be done in the new triangle between the three parties. We must ensure that Back Benchers and the minority parties have the opportunity to affect that situation. The tripartite arrangement is a step in the right direction, but it is not sufficient.

I am sure that we shall have to find ways to relieve the Speaker and Deputy Speakers of the difficult job that they have to do in making the arithmetical assessments across the Floor of the House in every debate as they try to work out who should speak, how and when. It is an unfair burden to place on the Speaker and Deputy Speakers, and we should not expect them to perform those gymnastics. We must look again at the Standing Orders. Perhaps we can learn something from the other place, where a simple system seems to work well.

All those issues are matters for the whole House. While it is important that the new Committee should have as wide a remit as possible, it would be wrong to ask its members to go into such detail, over such a length of time, that no progress was made in the House. I hope that the Leader of the House will agree that the new Committee could make proposals, as the Procedure Committee has previously, but not attempt to make a wide range of recommendations on every issue. It is particularly important to address the concerns of current Back Benchers, a great many of whom would otherwise feel frozen out of the true business of Parliament.

In a document entitled "A Parliament for the People", my party produced an extensive report on some detailed issues. The group was chaired by a distinguished former servant of the House, the former Clerk, Mr. Michael Ryle, and the proposals in the document have been well thought through. I hope that, by handing it over to the new Committee, we can ensure that all the minor, but important, matters are carefully considered.

It would be easy to get bogged down in the trivialities of who knocks on which door and what they wear, but our constituents deserve better. It is significant that the Press Gallery is almost empty; it is a sad reflection of the media's interest in the way this place works. We have to look to ourselves to improve it and to ensure that the media—and through them, the public—recognise that this is a great institution with a great role to play.

9 pm

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech when you, Madam Speaker, are in the Chair, given your other role as chancellor of the Open university, which is one of Milton Keynes's greatest exports.

I should like to start my parliamentary career in a relatively traditional way and speak of my predecessors who have represented the seat successively known as Buckingham, Milton Keynes and, since 1992, Milton Keynes, South-West. As well as being constituency Members of Parliament of merit, they have had unusual careers.

Two of my predecessors changed political parties. Aidan Crawley was elected as the first Labour Member of Parliament for Buckingham in 1945. He lost the seat and was elected elsewhere as a Conservative Member of Parliament. Sir Frank Markham, having been a Labour Member of Parliament and a parliamentary private secretary to Ramsay MacDonald, was elected as Conservative Member of Parliament for Buckingham. He is well known in the locality: not only was a school named after him, but he wrote a seminal work, a history of Milton Keynes, which I commend to hon. Members.

Two of my other predecessors gained notoriety owing to allegations of financial and/or electoral irregularity: Robert Maxwell and my immediate predecessor, Barry Legg. I pay tribute to Mr. Legg for his work on the Treasury Select Committee and for introducing a private Member's Bill on the control of drugs in nightclubs just before the last election.

My other predecessor, Bill Benyon, was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Buckingham from 1970–83 and the first Member of Parliament for Milton Keynes, from 1983–92. He is a particularly apt role model to cite in today's debate. He was an excellent constituency Member of Parliament and, when announcing in 1992 that he would not stand again after 22 years of service, he said: I am very disillusioned. One of my interests in Parliament was trying to reform its archaic procedures. I hope that, in my time as the Member of Parliament for Milton Keynes, South-West, we shall succeed in reforming the archaic procedures of Parliament and that I can therefore be a worthy successor to Bill Benyon.

My constituency is one half of the city of Milton Keynes. It combines the older centres of Stony Stratford, Wolverton and Bletchley with the much newer communities of Loughton and Woughton. The importance of excellent transport links to Milton Keynes is emphasised by the fact that there are four railway stations in my constituency, not all of which I use all the time.

As a scientist, I am proud of the importance of science, engineering and technology to industrial innovation in Milton Keynes. Wolverton is the home of the railway engineering works where the royal train used to be kept. Bletchley is famous for Bletchley Park where, during the second world war, the Enigma codes were broken using Colossus, the world's first computer, which fills a room about half the size of the Chamber. I am hopeful that under this Government Bletchley Park will succeed in its lottery bid to fund the museum and employment scheme at that important historic site.

Milton Keynes is a unique place: it is the only new city in the United Kingdom and is built, as those hon. Members who have visited it will know, on an American grid system with extensive environmental landscaping. It has a young population and is an optimistic and forward-looking place. Most of the residents have positively chosen to live there, in the expectation that their lives would be made better. Milton Keynes was, to some extent, failed by the previous Government in that its growth should have been complete by now. It should have a population of 250,000, but actually has fewer than 200,000, and 17 per cent. of the land is undeveloped.

My constituents and those in the other half of Milton Keynes are looking to Labour's policies to provide the environment in which Milton Keynes can develop, in particular to give us the stability and the investment in education and training on which our business growth depends. Businesses in Milton Keynes have frequently told me that their growth is held back by skills shortages, yet, at the same time, 3,000 school leavers come on to the job market every year in Milton Keynes and there are 800 unemployed under-25s. I hope that Labour's policies will bring those two problems together and will give our young people the opportunity to participate in the city's growth while allowing businesses to fuel further growth.

As befits a new city, the people of Milton Keynes take a fresh approach to problem solving—they are not hidebound by tradition—and I shall cite two examples. First, our businesses have joined the chamber of commerce with the training and enterprise council and the representatives of business on that chamber are elected by businesses in Milton Keynes. The unitary council in Milton Keynes and the chamber work closely together and are jointly committed both to economic development and to combating inequality. Businesses in Milton Keynes understand that only an inclusive society that uses the talents of everyone can provide an environment in which business can flourish.

The second example is in education: all the secondary schools in Milton Keynes, whether grant maintained or not, work together co-operatively. That might have something to do with the fact that the city's grant-maintained schools went grant-maintained so as to remain comprehensive schools and to avoid being forced to become selective by the county council, which then controlled them.

My electors voted for me because they wanted me to be part of a parliamentary Labour party that delivered on Labour's promises, as well as wanting me to represent their interests. They expect parliamentary procedures to facilitate the process of government and the implementation of the Government's programme, while including the proper safeguards for the Opposition to scrutinise that legislation. From speaking to my constituents on their doorsteps, I know that they are not always impressed by what they see on television or by some of the legislation that has emerged from Parliament. The obvious recent example of the latter was the legislation that gave us the Child Support Agency which, within a couple of days of my election, was furnishing the vast majority of the complaints that I received from constituents.

Another reason I have for stating why I think the procedures of the House need amending has to do with the sort of people who seek election as Members of Parliament. A good feature of this Parliament is that it is somewhat more representative of the population at large than previous Parliaments—obviously, I am referring to the number of women Members—but it is still not very representative of the population at large in terms of gender, ethnicity, social class or life experience. Many people are put off even thinking about becoming Members of Parliament because of the procedures of this place, so that is another good reason for changing them.

At risk of being controversial, which I know I am not supposed to do in my maiden speech, I have to say that I do not find the adversarial atmosphere of the House to be particularly helpful or conducive to constructive debate. We need to consider changing the way in which the House operates. In addition to suggestions made by hon. Members who have already spoken, I suggest that some sort of time limit on speeches might be quite helpful. I strongly agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that we should consider the physical arrangements of the House. It is ridiculous that Labour Members cannot sit on the Opposition Benches below the Gangway without people starting to think that, emulating my two predecessors, they have changed party.

I commend to the House the attitude of the people in Milton Keynes: that we should concentrate on how best to achieve the desired outcome and that we should be prepared to think anew without being bound by tradition. I hope that the House will do it in a shorter time than 22 years.

9.9 pm

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

Procedure is an arcane topic. In a venerable institution such as the House of Commons, it is liable to be taken for granted, with only a small group of procedural experts refining the details of ancient custom and practice while the rest of us get on with what we want to do under the rules as we find them.

The danger in that is that our House of Commons will fail to move with the times. Like the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), whom I congratulate on her elegant maiden speech, I am not a procedural expert, but I envisage three dangers in the discussions.

One danger is that, in our self-satisfaction with our 700 years of history, broadening down from precedent to precedent, we shall fail to pay regard to the way in which bodies like ours function elsewhere—sometimes better than we do. Another is that we shall tend to regard small innovations as huge breakthroughs, which is how I would characterise the establishment view of the Select Committees. The third danger is that we shall tend to make the changes that we do make in a such a piecemeal fashion that the ramifications and interactions of those changes are never fully worked out in advance.

For those reasons, I enthusiastically support the Government's proposal for a new Select Committee on Procedure. Such a Committee could and should help us to overcome the dangers that I have mentioned. It goes without saying that the Government must carry all parties in the House with them in the reform of its procedures; but the huge majority that the Government currently have gives them an historic opportunity and a major incentive to undertake extensive procedural developments.

The opportunity lies in the fact that the Government have such a big majority that they can afford to create new procedures, offering a chance of genuine pluralism in our debates and decision making. The incentive is that, if they fail to do so, they will soon encounter serious demoralisation—and worse—on their Back Benches.

I suppose that most new Labour Members, like Conservative Members, have entered Parliament, not only determined to give of their best in the public service, but wholly persuaded that theirs will be more than a full-time job. It remains to be seen how they will feel when they discover the facts of life under our existing procedures. They will be lucky to catch Madam Speaker's eye more than once a month or so at Question Time, and perhaps once every six months for a debate in the Chamber, with an audience of about 10 colleagues.

They will not be selected to serve on the Standing Committees of Bills in respect of which their expertise makes them too keen to serve, and when they are summoned to Standing Committee duty they will be told by their Whips that speeches are unwelcome—that has been mentioned several times tonight—so it will be a good opportunity for them to catch up with constituency correspondence.

If they happen to be one of the minority summoned to serve on a Select Committee—probably one on a subject on which they are not too conveniently well-informed—they will find that it takes months for the Government to respond to their reports, and that when they do, they show scant regard for their labours.

Perhaps I have been exaggerating for effect, but Members who have been in the House for some time know that there is a large measure of truth in the sombre picture that I have painted. What should we do about it?

I shall make a concrete proposal in a moment, but to lead into it, let me return to what I said about piecemeal changes whose full ramifications are not thought through.

The starting point of all our procedural debates should be the so-called Jopling reforms of the last Parliament, which have been mentioned. These welcome changes reflected the reality that hon. Members were no longer willing to sustain the pretence that open-ended debates and the archaic ritual of the all-night sitting offered effective parliamentary control over the Executive.

The truth is that the Jopling reforms went only half the distance. They dismantled one admittedly obsolete system of parliamentary influence—that which was based on the struggle for parliamentary time—but failed to erect an alternative system. The net effect is that Parliament is now even weaker vis-a-vis the Executive than before. The challenge to us in this Parliament is surely to build that alternative system for which Jopling created the space.

I urge the House to take to heart the other dangers that I have mentioned in our time-honoured approach to procedural reform: our complacency about the way in which other Parliaments—I have heard them referred to here as lesser Parliaments—work. I believe that we have much to learn from them. In a modern legislature, the main source of parliamentary influence over the Executive is to be found in the structures of institutionalised pluralism and a diversity of centres of influence which have to be negotiated with and operated by a well-informed and professionally disciplined cadre of Members. The best way to ensure that—as we can see by looking at Parliaments on the continent of Europe, in the United States and in the Commonwealth—is to rebuild our parliamentary life around an array of powerful subject-specialist committees.

My proposal, accordingly, is that we do away with the existing Standing Committees and Select Committees. Our Standing Committees are constituted ad hoc for particular legislation so that there is no continuity of membership or accumulation of expertise in them. Their membership is determined in reality by agents of the Executive in the Whips Office. Their Chairmen are limited to a purely procedural role which denies them any influence over policy.

Our Select Committees, meanwhile, do not compensate for these deficiencies. Their membership is once again controlled by the Whips and, more fundamentally, their arduous investigations are wholly disconnected from the legislative process, so that they have no levers with which to give practical effect to such expertise as they may develop. To replace these arrangements, we need a new unified Committee structure—a system of specialist Committees, each with its own subject area. By the way, these should not be limited to particular Departments of the Government.

The Committees should be constituted at the beginning of each Parliament, and every Member of Parliament who is not a member of the Government should be a member of at least one of those Committees. Their composition must reflect the balance of the House, but although the Whips will have a hand in deciding who goes where, their influence will be much diminished by the fact that all Members must be found a place. Each Committee should choose its own Chairman and Vice-Chairman to serve for at least two years under an overall agreement, giving a fair share of these positions to each party.

The task of these specialist Committees should include the conduct of investigations into whatever area of policy they choose within their remit—that is the function of the existing Select Committees. They should include also the detailed scrutiny of all legislation—primary and secondary, national and European—falling within their remit. That is the function of the present Standing Committees.

In both functions—the investigative and the legislative—they should be led not by Ministers, but by hon. Members of whatever party who are chosen by the Committee to serve as rapporteurs on a particular subject or a particular Bill. Rapporteurs should assist in another function that I see the new Committees performing—scrutinising expenditure on policies within their field of reference. That is a task that—with all respect to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon)—I believe the existing Public Accounts Committee does not have the subject-based expertise to perform.

The arrangements that I am suggesting would give every Back Bencher a serious job to do and would ensure that Members were much better informed and up to date in their knowledge than they can hope to be under our present system. They would create in the institutional esprit de corps of each Committee and in the persons of its Chairman, Vice-Chairman and rapporteur the genuinely pluralistic network of diffused centres of influence which is the only viable basis for an effective modern legislature.

In concluding, let me briefly address two words to Front-Bench Members on both sides of the House about the implications for them of the radical procedural change that I suggest. To my right hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench, let me freely admit that my suggestion will make it much more difficult to pursue the traditional line that the Opposition's duty is to oppose. Is it not time to recognise not only that that approach has always been something of a myth, but that it is now a wholly discredited myth in the public mind? An increasingly well-informed public look to us for constructive debate and a focus on the detailed improvement of legislation and its implementation, not for the impotent posturing that our traditional structures encourage.

To right hon. Members on the Government Front Bench, let me say that my proposal may look like a great renunciation of Executive power—the Government's power always to get their way in the House of Commons without negotiation. That would indeed be so, but the prize for the Executive is worth it. The prize will be Government legislation that reflects a more genuine and solidly based consent than it enjoys at present—legislation that enjoys the reinforced legitimacy that can come only from a Parliament that is seen to work in ways that command the public's respect.

9.20 pm
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

I shall not follow the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) in his interesting and radical suggestions, which I hope the Committee will study in detail, but shall follow up the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey). I hope that she and all the other new Back Benchers find the same joy and fulfilment as I have found as a Back Bencher by choice over the past seven years. Sadly, they might be Back Benchers by the arithmetic of this place.

My hon. Friend illustrated two main changes in this place. She speaks as a scientist, and the House has had a tradition of being scarcely scientifically literate. If we can get our decisions on to a basis of scientific reasoning, it would be a major leap forward.

She made another profound point. When I was a junior Back-Bench spokesman, I served with a senior Front-Bench spokesman who was a man, and then with two senior Front-Bench spokesmen who were women. There was an enormous difference between those two roles. With the male senior spokesman, our role was confrontational and challenging. We debated for hours, sometimes all through the night, but achieved very little. With the women spokesmen, there was reasoning between the two sides. We identified crucial areas and discussed them at a time of day when we were not exhausted. The influx of more than 100 women Members of Parliament will change this place utterly.

We take great pride in the mother of Parliaments but, as many hon. Members have said, Parliament's image outside is quite different. People regard the mother of Parliaments as becoming debauched by corruption, which is greatly exaggerated, and growing a little senile. We must look to those barriers and to our understanding of the work of this place.

The reason for early-day motion No. 5, which suggested something entirely new, is that hon. Members with declarable financial interests should not serve on Committees that cover that area. There is a good reason for that. If we look critically at how Select Committees have worked, many, such as the one mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the distinguished Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, have served us extremely well.

Others have not. They have divided regularly on party political lines in every report. Their reports do not have the respect of the House or the country. Others have divided on vested interests. I shall not mention those vested interests but, if half the Committee has financial interests in MegaGreed plc and the other half has vested interests in the Coathangers Union, the two sides clash and objective reasoning has no chance of dominating and determining the outcome of the Committee. It just depends on the strength of the two vested interests.

In this brief contribution, I shall point to some of the ways in which I think we should go forward. Some have been mentioned, and I will not repeat them.

We must look critically at the work of all the Select Committees. Often, they under-achieve. Our cross-examination of witnesses is not as professional and as hard as it should be. For a great deal of time, we are not doing detailed work on the Committee. Select Committees are often dominated by advisers and others, rather than by Members. There is a huge area in which that valuable work can be enlarged.

The Standing Committees are an ossified foolishness. I was delighted by what the hon. Member for Wantage said. We must look at them in a new way. I went through those two Committee reports in great detail with a person who wrote a book about the way in which we run our Committees.

I do not think that anyone now admits to serving on the Committee that considered the Bill establishing the Child Support Agency, because of the results of it. The problem was not that members of the Committee did not foresee difficulties arising from that legislation, but that they focused on the wrong ones—on problems that did materialise, but the enormous problems that emerged were not considered by the Committee.

We must re-examine that and various other Bills. We have all experienced the terrible frustration of serving on Committees, tabling amendments, arguing for hour after hour and finding nothing was accepted.

Mr. Robert Jackson

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the case of the Child Support Agency, and he referred to it earlier in an intervention as an example of confrontation. I, too, looked at the proceedings because, like everyone else, I have been struck by the amazing number of complaints that have been generated. Actually, it was an extremely consensual process in the Standing Committee. That is a jolly good example of the way in which the consensual process can go wrong, but the real moral of that story is that the Bill should have been put through a process of examination by experts and discussion with witnesses. That would have produced the kind of evidence that would have enabled a serious discussion to take place in Standing Committee.

Mr. Flynn

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that the matter should have been approached in a different way.

I shall make two final points, as I know that many other hon. Members want to speak. We must enlarge the great work carried out by the Public Accounts Committee. It does a marvellous job, but covers only a tiny part—perhaps one seventieth—of the work that should be covered. Rather than a sub-committee structure, I would prefer a subject-matter structure. There are enormous opportunities for Back Benchers to do serious, worthwhile work.

We must rediscover the traditional role of Back Benchers—the Sydney Silvermans, the Leo Abses—who challenged conventional bigotry and ignorance. We have seen the tabloidisation of politics, where political parties have been far too interested in pleasing the writers of editorials in the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail, instead of creating genuinely innovative policies. Those policies will come from the Back Benches. We must rediscover that role by allowing genuine chances for Back Benchers to get their own legislation through.

I am sure that this will be a great Parliament—a Parliament different from any in our history, that will achieve great reforms. We must ensure that by reinforcing the role of the Back Benchers and by blazing new trails.

9.27 pm
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I should like to recommend some practical ideas to the Leader of the House from the perspective especially of newcomers to the House. We can all remember when we were newcomers. I should like her to pay particular attention to some kind of induction course or training course for newcomers. Many new Members wander round this place for months, if not years, not knowing what goes on and not understanding the jargon used in the Chamber.

This evening, for example, SO 20s were mentioned by a distinguished Member, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who has been here many years and has, no doubt, introduced many SO 20s, whatever they are—I do not know what they are, even now. It would be enormously helpful for new Members to understand such things.

Many hon. Members do not even understand how to gets their name called in the Chamber. Some who may not have been paying a great deal of attention to the debate but perhaps watching the Chair may have seen me sidle up to the Speaker a little while ago. I was trying to discover whether it was worth my while staying in the Chamber till the end of this extremely interesting debate and whether I was likely to be called. Madam Speaker rightly pointed out to me that I had not submitted my name in advance.

Madam Speaker

Then Madam Speaker said, "Go and sit down and wait your turn."

Mrs. Gorman

Madam Speaker was quite correct—I was about to come to that point. New Members of Parliament may not know that: they may sit in their places for many hours without being called because they are not aware of that simple protocol.

As the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne said, newcomers have a great deal to contribute to Parliament, but preference is given to seniority in debates, so new Members may not be called to speak. I remember sitting through five days of Budget debate without being called. That was very frustrating. Although it is natural that seniority should command respect, I have pointed out to the Speaker that Privy Councillors and Chairmen of Committees are called to speak in the House more often, which means that Back Benchers have fewer opportunities to speak. Madam Speaker referred me to the Leader of the House—then Tony Newton—who assured me that he did not necessarily want senior Members of Parliament to have special privileges. There was some difference of opinion about the issue.

New Members of Parliament do not know about those little dodges. In my house, I have a very helpful booklet on "household tips and wrinkles". I think that a House of Commons book of "tips and wrinkles" might help many newcomers.

I nipped out of the Chamber a little while ago. When I popped back in, I saw that Madam Speaker had noted my absence. I do not know why she thought I left the Chamber, but I went to get a list of Members. I knew that, if I were called to speak, I might want to refer to an hon. Member in the Chamber and it is the tradition to refer to hon. Members by their constituencies. The Leader of the House raised that issue briefly, and I have great sympathy for her point of view.

Although I know the name of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, I am not allowed to call him by name; I must refer to his constituency. I know that there are good reasons for that practice, but it causes confusion for hon. Members who wish to speak spontaneously while referring to other hon. Members and addressing their points of view. I urge the right hon. Lady not to be dissuaded from examining that matter. When there are many Members of Parliament, not just new Members but long-standing Members can take a long time to learn all the constituency names.

The Prime Minister said that Members of Parliament are the servants, not the masters, of the people. There is a tendency for hon. Members to employ friends or family members in their offices. When considering disposing of their office allowances, hon. Members should bear in mind that their decision may cause comment. Remarks have been made in the past about nepotism in the system, which may be inappropriate and is sometimes picked up by our electors.

Nepotism is a disease that goes hand in hand with privilege. There was a classic local council case recently—in Monklands—when 32 members of the same family were employed by that council. That example was raised many times in the House. I would prefer to see Parliament not choosing the individuals, but arranging for secretaries and other staff and allotting their salaries. That would alleviate any charges of nepotism, in which hon. Members have the opportunity to indulge in this place.

9.35 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

In a sense, the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) gave the message away. It was apparent that she was keen to enter the Chamber to speak, but not to listen. That is one of the fundamental problems in this place. Too many hon. Members want to make their speeches but not to listen to others. If that is all that we want to do, why do we not all line up and make our speeches simultaneously? It is crucial that we listen to other hon. Members' speeches. It was a privilege to be in the Chamber to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey). She made an excellent speech and I look forward to hearing her on many more occasions.

I wish that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House had started her speech by placing rather more emphasis on good scrutiny of legislation. There are some who suspect that the Government want to get their business through more quickly than has happened hitherto. If we are to have better scrutiny, it must be accepted that that will make life harder for Ministers, and especially hard for Government Whips. The long-term gain will be evident a considerable time later when we are seen to put better legislation on the statute book and conduct better government.

I press it upon my right hon. Friend that, when we change our formal procedures, we must also consider the informal. No doubt most people will judge the changes to Prime Minister's Question Time by what happens in the Chamber. I suggest that we should consider also what happens outside. Does the change to Prime Minister's questions means that fewer Ministers will come to the House on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that they might be lobbied by their colleagues and others? Let us balance the formal by considering also the informal.

I shall present briefly a shopping list of the things that I would like at least to be considered. First, there are constitutional matters. It is a bit of a cheek for the Opposition to get hot and bothered about constitutional matters being taken on the Floor of the House after they, while in government, pushed through the poll tax, which in many ways denied many people their right to vote. That legislation was, of course, considered in Committee.

If the Opposition want constitutional matters to be considered on the Floor of the House, it would be sensible to consider sitting on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. The Wednesday experiment has proved that that can be done. The argument against Wednesday sittings was that we might have votes, which would make life difficult for Ministers and for part-time Members. Probably even the Conservative party cannot afford now to have part-timers. I think that almost all my right hon. and hon. Friends gave a clear commitment during the election campaign that they would be full-time Members.

We can make use of the mornings and I think that we can have Divisions during those sittings. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said that one concession reached in establishing Wednesday morning sittings was that Back-Bench Members would not move motions. I think that that right should be restored at the earliest opportunity so that we can have the ensuing debates on a Wednesday morning or at some other time.

It is important that there is interchange during debates on the Floor of the House. If there is to be an interchange, there must be interventions. I approve of the 10-minute rule, which is designed to reduce the length of speeches, but I plead with you, Madam Speaker, to consider whether we can have injury time for interventions. That allowance was recommended by the Procedure Committee. It would bring back the idea of debate and make it clear that we do not just sit in our places doing nothing but can be involved in interruptions that are of some use.

It is important that we establish some ad hoc Select Committees. I plead for some regional Select Committees. We shall be giving new powers to regional Assemblies in Scotland and Wales, and surely the English regions have rights as well. The establishment of Select Committees to reflect the English regions would be extremely useful.

I hope that there will be many more opportunities to scrutinise proposed legislation. It is important that a Select Committee should be able to examine a Bill before its parliamentary passage begins. Consideration on Report has become a farce. There is a mixture of major issues and detailed Government amendments. Those amendments should be considered on recommittal.

A substantial agenda needs to be considered. I hope that the House will act quickly in setting up the proposed Committee. I hope also that the Committee will work quickly and that, by this time next year, we shall see the fruits of its labour.

9.39 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Owing to your good offices, Madam Speaker, and that of the Leader of the House and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad), it has been decided that there will not be winding-up speeches from Front Benchers—rather, that two Back Benchers will have the opportunity to say a few words. I hope that that is a happy precedent.

I add my tributes to those already paid to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), who made a most eloquent and interesting contribution. I could not pretend to agree with everything that she said, and I would just urge a little caution in wanting to change too much too quickly, but by the same token it is helpful for those of us who have been here a long time to hear the perceptive comments of a highly intelligent newcomer who has obviously taken a lot of trouble to try to size the place up. I am sure that we will hear much more from her. It would be admirable if she, or one or two newer Members, had the opportunity to participate in the Committee that the House will shortly set up.

The Leader of the House is, perhaps, braver than she realises, because at the heart of the debate is the classic dichotomy: we do not have a separation of powers. Many of the Parliaments to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) referred in his interesting speech have a separation of powers, where the Executive is not drawn from the legislature. I know that there are some that do not—

Sir Patrick Cormack


Mr. Jackson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, but that simply is not the case. He is thinking of the United States, but the Federal Republic of Germany, a number of continental countries and Commonwealth countries have systems very similar to ours, and their Parliaments operate more effectively, I believe, because they are committee-based, in the way that I suggested

Sir Patrick Cormack

Yes, indeed. There are some Parliaments like ours, but equally there are a number that have a separation of powers. It is not just the United States where that exists.

When I talk about the essential dichotomy, I mean that the right hon. Lady, in her capacity as a leading Member of the Government, is understandably anxious to get Government business through—she is anxious that there should be many Bills, to which Labour referred in its election manifesto and to which it feels morally committed—but to get business through and to have it properly scrutinised, which is the keynote in this debate, is a problem.

The right hon. Lady has the luxury of an enormous majority. Many hon. Members who have come into the House for the first time will not have the opportunity in the lifetime of this Parliament to have Government office, or even properly to aspire to it. We should remember that being in the House is itself sufficient of a challenge and reward. It is a great pity to come into the House with a mental picture of a chauffeur-driven Montego, a Dispatch Box, or whatever. For us to be here, to take part in the debates, to scrutinise and to subject the Government to detailed examination is in itself a great task. That is why our constituents have sent us here. We should seek so to change our procedures that it is easier properly to scrutinise the legislation that the Government produce. That is the object of Parliament. Parliament does not govern; it scrutinises legislation.

I warmly welcome everything that the right hon. Lady said about Special Standing Committees and the opportunity to see draft legislation. In an earlier intervention, when she was gracious enough to give way, I referred to my experience as a Chairman of Committees. I have had the honour of chairing many Standing Committees. It is a fascinating task and one that I greatly enjoy, but I am bound to say that I frequently sit in the Chair and feel very frustrated indeed. As was rightly said, the Chairman can play no part in the deliberations. He just sits there and is all too conscious that, time after time, almost no Government Back Bencher gets up and says anything at all.

That is not a criticism of my party, so recently in government. I was here in 1970. I sat on Committees when my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath)—the Father of the House—Lord Wilson and Lord Callaghan were Prime Ministers, and it was always the same. The Government were so anxious to get their legislation through that the Whips told the Government Back Benchers on Committees that their job was to keep their heads down. Only occasionally is there a Committee where that is not the norm.

I hope that the new procedural Committee which is to be set up will look with enormous care and diligence at how we can so timetable Bills as to change that system. Every Government Back Bencher in this Parliament who is appointed to a Committee should feel free to take part in debates. The luxury of the Labour party's large majority should allow the Leader of the House and her colleagues in the Whips Office to be rather more flexible and to allow a little dissent. There is nothing healthier than dissent. Infallibility is not automatically conferred on Governments.

I have frequently, and to my cost, because I have never made a speech from either Dispatch Box, sought to take issue with my Government. The poll tax legislation has been referred to during the evening. I did not cast one vote in its favour. Indeed, I voted against it on every conceivable occasion.

Mr. Maxton

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Patrick Cormack

No, I am sorry, I do not have much time.

I hope that Government Back Benchers will take that as an example and feel free properly to scrutinise and criticise the legislation before them.

Select Committees do extremely valuable work, but it would be enormously to the advantage of Parliament if every major Select Committee report had to be at least briefly debated on the Floor during a parliamentary year. Great work is put into those Committees. Sometimes their findings are of enormous importance, yet the rest of the House has little or no opportunity to deliberate on their findings. We should consider setting aside more days to debate Select Committee reports. If that restricts the amount of legislation, that in itself would be a good thing, because too much legislation inevitably means that there is sloppily drafted legislation and more danger of bad legislation.

I should like to think that, in our joint desire to see the Chamber more populated more often, we might consider so organising the Committee system that we have perhaps one day when Committees have priority and the Chamber meets just briefly in the afternoon. That might free hon. Members to be in the Chamber more on other occasions. This should be the of the nation, where hon. Members feel that they have a prime duty to be in attendance.

I was much taken by the excellent speech of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, when he talked about the count. Perhaps that is something that we should consider bringing back. We should also consider stricter enforcement of the convention of a discipline whereby, if an hon. Member is to take part in a debate, he or she is present virtually throughout it. That would help enormously because it would encourage true debating. Hon. Members would be here, they would listen and they would be able to take part. I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman's point about injury time, because the cut and thrust of debate is of its very essence.

I am conscious that I must give the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) at least as much time as I have had, so I conclude by saying that I hope that the Leader of the House will give careful thought to the structure not only of the parliamentary week but of the parliamentary year. I realise that it would probably be difficult to effect much of a change this year, but I hope that next year there will be change. I hope that, in the autumn, the right hon. Lady will, in effect, give us a parliamentary calendar for the year.

Of course, it would have to be subject to change in an emergency. During the time I have been in the House, Parliament has been recalled several times. It is absolutely right that it should be recalled on occasions such as the Gulf war, the Falklands conflict and major crises in Northern Ireland. Every Government must have the right to do that, but I should like a more structured parliamentary year.

We have heard some excellent contributions in this debate, especially from such experienced and eloquent Members as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery). I hope that new Members who have been present will feel that this place is a worthwhile institution. We must all play our part in seeking to improve its procedures. Making haste slowly although determinedly—we should be determined to make the place better—should perhaps be our motto, rather than rushing into reforms that we later have cause to regret.

9.50 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

This Parliament has a wonderful window of opportunity radically to reform the House of Commons—something for which many of us have fought for, year after year. We start from the position that the House of Commons, throughout the centuries, has been the model for Parliaments around the world, yet, sadly and tragically, in the past 80 years or so we have reformed it too little and too late. Now we have another opportunity. What encourages me so much is not only the way in which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House addresses this issue, but the contributions that we have heard from both sides of the House. Radically important contributions have been made.

Mr. Maxton

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Soley

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I shall not give way, because I have only 10 minutes and I want to make some important points. I think that he will support me, but if he feels desperately about anything I say, I shall let him intervene. Please give me time to make my points.

Mr. Maxton

I find it depressing.

Mr. Soley

Well, let me just say this. We all agree that there should be more evidence taking in the Committee system. The Special Standing Committee procedure was established in 1980, but it was used only seven times up till 1996. That is tragic. It has been mentioned a number of times, because the poll tax and the Child Support Agency would not have seen the light of day if those Committees had taken evidence from outside.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) made a wonderful speech, befitting a scientist. It was full of light and reason, although I warn her that, from my experience, light and reason do not necessarily advance one's political career. Indeed, I sometimes think that a working definition of political activity is anything that defies reason and logic. What she said was very important. Like so many of us, she picked up the point that taking evidence first improves the legislation that comes out at the end.

I want to mention two committees that were held in the House but were outside the parliamentary structure: the press committee, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) chaired for me, and the committee on the family, which was held during the United Nations Year of the Family. Both of those committees took evidence from people outside. Although they had no formal existence in the House of Commons, over and again they attracted coverage on the television and radio news and in the press. I had masses of letters from people saying, "Why can't Parliament do this more often?"

We must find a way for Back Benchers to set up such committees. They have a limited, finite life and can consider particular areas of policy. They can examine contentious areas that Government and Opposition parties are afraid to consider. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) knows exactly what I mean. We are reluctant to examine certain subjects, such as drugs and the royal family, because of our fear of the treatment that they are given in the tabloid press. We are even reluctant to deal with issues of the family. Would it not be nice if, at the same time as we considered the family, we took the advice that we give to people outside and introduced some family-friendly policies into House of Commons procedures?

There are many issues in which we can involve Back Benchers directly by means of the Committee structure. We have done that in the past; it is not as though it is a new idea. I make no excuse for using again an example that I have used many times before, which is in Hansard. In 1833, there were riots in Clerkenwell. On 11 July 1833, the House of Commons ordered That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the Conduct of the Metropolitan Police on the 13th May last, in dispersing a Public Meeting in Cold Bath Fields". One police officer had been killed. If we carried out a study like that, there would be headlines in the tabloid press about Members of Parliament attacking the police. The Committee reported in August of that year, after taking evidence outside. One of its recommendations was that the police should never act as agents provocateurs. All the recommendations were implemented.

When we had riots in 1981, Lord Scarman—for whom I have great admiration—spent some years on a procedure that involved taking evidence and reporting to the House. We still have not acted on many of those recommendations. It is nonsense that we were doing it better in 1833. We could be proud of our procedure then. Indeed, people around the world were copying it, saying, "What a good idea. Let us do the same." If that could be done in 1833, we could do it now.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) said that we had lost something, and that is what we have lost. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) hit the nail on the head: we need to give Back Benchers more power, more influence and more independence.

There is, however, a problem for both Government and Opposition. The Government's job is to get their legislation through. What we must do, within the culture of the House, is recognise that, as Back Benchers, we must allow Governments to get their legislation through; but Governments must allow Back Benchers much more say on the variation of legislation. That is why evidence taking is so important, as is the ability to participate in the Committee structure. I was attracted by some of the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), who made an important contribution to the debate.

We must approach the media differently. The right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) spoke about a dedicated parliamentary television channel. I have no problem with that, but we need to do something much more important: we need to allow television and radio to be involved in our activities far more easily.

When I set up my two committees, one on the press and one on the family, there were only two or three Committee Rooms in which I could put television equipment. It is absurd that a Member of Parliament who wants to film a meeting cannot do so in the vast majority of Rooms in the House. Surely, if the hon. Members who are present want the meeting to be televised, it should be, but our funny rules and regulations make it very difficult for the media to report what we are doing effectively. Although we rightly complain at times about the way in which the media report us, we make it difficult for them. Let us open up the whole media debate, and be more realistic.

I also think that we should look again at the Representation of the People Act 1989. There is a good deal of evidence to show that the way in which it works is not allowing good coverage of elections, as we saw very dramatically at the last general election. That, however, is a wider issue, which I will not deal with now.

The facilities in the House are inadequate. New Members know that better than others, but we all knew it when we were first elected. I could speak about that at some length if I had time.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne was also right about time in the House, but if we are to give people time here—if we are to get people back in here—one of the things that we must do, as Members of Parliament, is stop acting so much like rather big councillors. That means devolving power to regional government. It would mean that we could start being Members of Parliament and might even look at the heretical matter of reducing the number of Members of Parliament. We need to do that, and if the number were reduced, hon. Members would get more than about four chances a year of catching the Speaker's eye in a major debate.

This splendid debate presents an enormous opportunity. I ask the House, I almost plead with it, to look at these proposed reforms, so that, 10, 20 or 50 years from now, we shall be able to look back and say, "Yes, I was part of the Parliament that reformed the British House of Commons and brought it back into the forefront of parliamentary democracy."

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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