§ The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)
I beg to move,That this House approves the First Report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons: The Legislative Process (HC 190).
I am pleased that we have now come to the debate on this important topic. Many hon. Members are pleased that the Select Committee on Modernisation has produced a report so quickly. Soon after the general election, in the debates on the Gracious Speech and in subsequent debates, hon. Members showed that there is a great desire for modernisation. What struck many of us was that not just new Members are interested in changing our procedures, but many experienced hon. Members who have been in the House for some time want better procedures so that their time can be put to better use.
It becomes obvious to hon. Members who have been in the House for some time that some debates are not as fruitful, productive and enlightening as they could be, although I draw no conclusions from the previous debate. Some hon. Members may feel that that hour could have been better spent, and that one of the lessons to be learned is that if all hon. Members did their homework before they came into the Chamber, the debates would be of a better quality, although that aspect is not yet being considered by the Committee.
At the general election, the Labour party promised to put the issue of the modernisation of the House of Commons on the agenda, and to establish a Select Committee to examine the topic. We are discussing the Committee's first report and its progress to date. I hope that the debate and the responses of hon. Members by letter or through discussions will enable the Committee to set priorities for its future work. We intend to consider the parliamentary year and the parliamentary week, the conduct of debate in the Chamber and the scrutiny of European legislation.
I shall begin by referring to the report and its specific recommendations. I hope that our proposals and the reasons for them are clear from the report, which was agreed unanimously. When the Committee was first established and the names of its members were published, there was some doubt as to whether it could proceed on the basis of unanimity, but we worked extremely well as a Committee. I pay tribute to members of the Committee for their appreciation of the mood for change that has been evident in the House.
To some people, any discussion of the procedures of the House may seem dry and boring. Perhaps that is inevitable. If the changes that the Committee has suggested could be made to work—which could happen only with the good will of all hon. Members—we would make better use of parliamentary time, and the scrutiny of Bills would be more appropriate. The procedure would be more flexible, so that the treatment of each Bill would depend on what was appropriate for that legislation.
The Committee is grateful for the comments of the Chairmen's Panel. We appreciate the fact that it considered the report quickly, and its response has been very positive. The points that it has raised and the items that it wants us to examine in further detail can usefully be discussed. We are grateful for its constructive comments.
1062 The Committee dealt with a range of issues. We discussed the possibility of programming certain Bills to make better use of the time available, and to ensure that the different parts of a Bill are discussed appropriately. We have come up with suggestions for greater flexibility, particularly in Standing Committees. For example, the new clause procedure could be used when discussing every part of the Bill. Instead of discussing all the amendments and then having a clause stand part of the debate at the end, we could, in Committee, have a clause stand part debate at the beginning, and then move on to consider amendments once the Committee had decided to accept the principle of the clause. That would allow members of the Committee to discuss the clause, and amendments to it, more constructively, which would benefit everyone.
§ Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)
According to paragraph 16 of the Chairmen's Panel report on the Modernisation Committee's proposals concerning the legislative process, the panel's memberssee some difficulty in adapting to this method of proceeding.We would be wise to consider that with some care. I do not want to raise hopes that we are going to do something until we are certain about it.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I have discussed the matter with the Chairman of Ways and Means. I understand that the Chairmen's Panel would like an experiment to be carried out—not just in one or two Standing Committees; a more widespread experiment. That would allow the changes to be experienced in different sets of circumstances. Perhaps we were not being adventurous enough for the Chairmen's Panel. There is, however, a constructive point to be made: if we are to conduct experiments, they must be sufficiently extensive for us to learn something from them. 1 do not think that I am breaking any confidences when I say that, when I spoke to the Chairman of Ways and Means, I undertook to consider that recommendation and to discuss it further, bearing the Panel's views in mind. I thought that those views showed a constructive approach to our suggestions.
Much of what the Modernisation Committee says suggests that we should use the existing procedures of the House in a more imaginative way than we sometimes do. I think that many hon. Members—including, perhaps, some members of the Committee—were struck by the flexibility that already exists in our proceedings. We often do not take advantage of that flexibility, using routine procedures as a matter of course. The diagram at the back of the Committee's report is very illuminating. There is much that we can do to improve the position if there is good will throughout the House. When we want change, we should make that change on an experimental basis. We should not rush to presume that the Committee has uncovered every detail of the change that is required—and, certainly, the Committee did not approach its work in that way. For the Government's part, I submitted a memorandum to the Committee, which has been published. We welcomed the report, and will of course co-operate in trying to ensure that the proposed changes work in practice.
The section on draft Bills, which was in the memorandum, has found general favour. We have also said that we will introduce—this year, I hope—seven draft Bills, and I hope that it will be possible for at least some 1063 of them to be considered by the departmental Select Committees with the aim of improving decision making and giving Back Benchers a more constructive role. I am pleased to say that the Select Committee on Social Security—which is chaired by a Liberal Democrat—has already agreed that, when the draft Bill on pension sharing is ready, it will conduct an investigation, and try to ensure that the Bill's proposals are workable. I believe that, had we adopted a similar approach when, for example, the Child Support Agency was introduced, we would not have our present problems.
Draft Bills can be used to deal with other problems that arise from time to time. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will shortly publish a draft Bill dealing with rapid-draw lotteries, which are causing concern to many people but on which it will take time to legislate. A draft Bill will enable others to see what proposals are ready, and we can legislate when we find a slot. Draft legislation can play a constructive role, and, when it deals with significant issues such as pension sharing, it will benefit everyone if a Select Committee is involved. There is agreement on that now.
It is possible that not all the Committee's recommendations can be tried out this year. It may not be possible to try out enough of them to conduct a proper experiment. For instance, I cannot at this stage mention a suitable Bill for a rollover experiment. Perhaps, over the next few months, an issue will emerge to which the Government will want to respond—or will be under pressure from the Opposition to respond—and legislation will be required, to be dealt with by a Special Standing Committee. On that basis, we might want to recommend such a Bill for rollover: I do not rule that out. The Government, however, will not manufacture such a Bill simply to test the procedure. We should keep an open mind, and use the suggestions in the Committee's report as appropriate.
This is an unusual year. It is the first year of a new Parliament, and the first year of any new Parliament generally involves a heavy legislative programme. That was the case under earlier Conservative Governments, and the legislative programme of a new Government who have been out of office for 18 years is particularly heavy in the first year. It may not be possible to assess the full impact of the proposed changes, because they cannot be assessed against the background of the weight of business in a normal year. I hope, however, that we can test as many of the new proposals as possible, and that most of them—perhaps with minor modifications—will prove useful to the House.
Some of the changes recommended by the Modernisation Committee have already been implemented. Let me give some examples, which may seem minor to those outside the House but have, I think, been helpful to Members of Parliament. One of the first pressures that we experienced came from new Members who were appalled at the congestion in the Lobbies. We examined the problem urgently, and suggested that a third desk should be used. That alleviated—but did not solve—the problem of congestion at voting times. After the Committee made that recommendation, the House implemented it swiftly; we were grateful for that.
1064 The Committee will consider other possible changes in voting procedure in the new Session, and will take evidence about the possibility of electronic voting. It has not been decided to adopt such a system yet. I think that one point on which all members of the Committee are agreed is that, whatever changes are made, voting should take place either in the Chamber or in the Lobbies—in the vicinity of the Chamber, rather than remote from it. The Committee is still considering the matter, however, and is seeking extra evidence.
We also—you, Madam Speaker, are aware of this as much as anyone—made recommendations on changing the Order Paper, and you authorised the introduction of the new Order Paper after the summer recess. The response was much more significant than I had thought it would be—Members seemed really to welcome the change. Members of the press in particular were somewhat puzzled by the fact that they could now understand what was going to happen later in the day.
It may be possible to make even more improvements to the Order Paper and to build on what we have done so far. One or two suggestions have been made and if hon. Members have any other ideas we will, of course, consider them. One that has been mentioned to me is to incorporate into the Order Paper once a week the times and nature of Select Committee sittings when evidence is being taken, so that Members have further warning of what is happening. Sometimes, they do not realise until the morning that such a sitting is taking place and, by that time, they have other commitments.
Another matter that may seem technical and dry, but which is important, is the explanatory memorandum. Some legislation has already gone through the House and new Members in particular may have been somewhat puzzled by some of the information that accompanies a Bill. The so-called explanatory material is often as difficult to comprehend as the Bill. It can often be extremely technical and it does not always give a full picture of exactly what the Bill does. Often it uses the same technical language as the Bill. That problem has caused concern for many years. Committee members shared my concern about that, as did the Parliamentary Counsel Office, which is responsible for the drafting of Bills and of explanatory memorandums.
Ministers have often provided at least notes on clauses. Sometimes, those are informative; sometimes they too simply echo the clauses to Committees. That does not seem to take us much further forward. What is required is one document that sets out in non-technical terms the key points that are needed to grasp what a Bill does and how it will do it. We suggest that there should be changes on the part of Government when a Bill is presented. The First Parliamentary Counsel has been working to provide a new document, which might be called "The Explanatory Notes to a Bill", and would replace the existing explanatory memorandum and notes on clauses. To have such a document published for the assistance of Members would be a significant step forward and, of course, it could be made more widely available—including, I would hope, on the internet.
The only sensible way in which to judge the value of this proposal is to consider examples, so I am going to write to each member of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, setting out some of the detailed proposals, including an example or two of what a new set of explanatory notes could look 1065 like. I shall ensure that those examples are placed in the Library, so that other Members can see them and comment. Then the Committee might wish to discuss what advice it wants to give to the Government in terms of proceeding along those lines. It would be helpful if we informed Members in a better way exactly what the purpose and contents of Bills are.
All those things are not exactly earth shattering. Some people would say that we would not have had any changes had they been so, but they mark real progress and there is certainly much more to do. Some people said a few months ago, "When will you modernise Parliament?", as if modernisation were one event. None of us on the Committee thought of modernisation as one event. It is a process and we have started well on it, but there is much more work to come.
§ Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
May I draw to my right hon. Friend's attention how pleased I am with the progress in respect of legislation? That is absolutely crucial, but a further aspect concerns me as well, which I hope the Committee will have an opportunity to move on to because it is important, too. It is how Parliament has proper scrutiny through Select Committees of what the Government are doing. May I bring to her attention the work and recommendations of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, of which I am a current member and on which I have sat previously? Recommendations in its report relate to the Crown jewels procedure and to whether we should have a procedure for parliamentary investigations instigated by the House or by Select Committees. In certain circumstances, such a parliamentary investigation could perhaps have more resources than Select Committees currently have for particular inquiries. I urge her to consider that issue, too, when we have got through this legislative programme for improving our procedures.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I know that my hon. Friend has done much work on Select Committees and I value her expertise. I cannot promise that we will recommend the changes that she suggests, but we will certainly come on to the work of Select Committees. All Members at that stage will have an opportunity to feed in their ideas and she will be able to expand on hers at that time.
On the future work of the Select Committee, let me remind Members of the work that we are doing immediately and in the near future. We are doing further work on the feasibility and desirability of electronic voting, and we are considering the way in which the parliamentary year, parliamentary week and parliamentary day are scheduled. We have had a couple of interesting and open discussions, although no conclusions have been drawn. We are going to consider the conduct of debate in the House and the scrutiny of European legislation. All are areas of concern to many Members. We received many representations on them when the Committee was first established.
I should be happy to hear more from Members this evening about what their priorities are, but I know that there are conflicts in the views of different Members from different parts of the country or in different groups. All Members should appreciate that there are no easy solutions to these problems.
Following the Jopling changes, surveys were done and the information that we have already from Members shows us that, in some respects, there is an agreed pattern 1066 of what a parliamentary week should be. Most Members believe that Parliament should sit from Monday lunch time to Thursday tea time. Many think that there should be no very late nights, although London Members would define late nights differently from Select Committee members, as would northern Members.
There is concern about the fact that Parliament sits so much when schools are on holiday and it is half term. There are demands for constituency weeks, for early notices of the recess, for no diminution in the power of Back Benchers and for the Government not to use guillotines, yet there is also a requirement for Government to get their legislation through. It is clear that all those objectives are not compatible. Different Members legitimately have different priorities. For some Members, the priority is to be in this Chamber. For others, it is to serve on a Select Committee. Some will specialise in European legislation or regional advocacy and others will want to spend a lot of time representing the interests of their constituents, perhaps at constituency level.
It is impossible to please everyone, but we are trying to devise a system that will allow all 659 Members to undertake their jobs in their individual way—in the way that they think is most appropriate to their constituents. That is the difficulty with which we wrestle. Every hon. Member carries out their job in a different way, according to what they think is appropriate for their constituency. We have to provide a framework to enable them to do that.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
The right hon. Lady was describing the different ways in which Members of Parliament approach their job. Will she accept that, in the circumstances that she has described, it would be impossible to lay out a job description for Members of Parliament? Will she resist the calls that I understand are being made to produce such a document?
§ Mrs. Taylor
I think that our constituents would be surprised to learn that there is no job description for Members of Parliament. The problem is that one runs into significant difficulties as soon as one attempts to write such a document. That is why I acknowledge that all Members of Parliament do their considerable job in very different ways. The priorities I have expressed, such as the Chamber, Select Committees and constituency work, are all legitimate priorities. I suspect that all hon. Members would, or at least should, acknowledge that they have to cover all those points at some stage during their parliamentary life.
We need a framework to allow Members of Parliament to do their job in the way that they each think fit. At the same time, we have to deliver good government, and that is a tall order. We have to ensure that we satisfy everybody and that everybody can undertake their work as they wish.
From the responses we have had it is easy to see how different the priorities are. Some people ask for more time for Adjournment debates, some are demanding more morning sittings and some object to any morning sittings at all because they want to get on with their constituency work. We have had demands for early evening finishes or for Committees to sit in the evening. We have had objections to such proposals from Members with constituencies in different parts of the country; they take a different view. The Committee will have to take on board all those different views.
1067 The Committee is aware that there is consensus for change, but we also know that there is not yet consensus about what that change should be. It is important that the Committee should formulate ideas in the context of keeping in touch with hon. Members. That is why we will continue to encourage hon. Members to feed in information and to keep in touch with members of the Committee.
We have had many suggestions about the Chamber that I know will interest you, Madam Speaker, and your Deputy Speakers and Chairmen. There have been suggestions that Question Time should be in the morning rather than the afternoon and that the House should rise at 7 o'clock—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] There have been suggestions that the House should never sit on Fridays and that we should use Tuesday and Thursday mornings for Committees of the whole House.
All those suggestions have some logic and my hon. Friends are saying "Hear, hear." to some of them. If we did all of them, we would get no business through at all, especially if we had constituency weeks as well. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) approves of the idea of us getting no business through. He has already proved today that he is not a moderniser so I would expect nothing less from him.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I am glad to have that confirmed.
During the next few weeks, we will be discussing the conduct of debates in the House. That is necessary because there have been so many changes in attitude to debate over the years and because some of the normal courtesies of the House seem to have gone out of the window. We saw that yesterday during the introduction of the new Member with some of the most appalling scenes I have seen in the House for some time.
When the new Members first arrived in the House they looked for quick solutions such as suggesting that every speech should be limited to 10 minutes. There have been suggestions that Privy Counsellors should not be given precedence in debate. There have been discussions about wigs, top hats and about referring to Members by name rather than by constituency. We have reached no decisions on those matters and our main concern will be to ensure that the House functions properly and that good use is made of the time of hon. Members.
The Select Committee has made a good start on the process of change, but it is a process. I hope that the House will support the report and assist the Committee in its future work.
§ Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)
As the Leader of the House has pointed out, the report has been agreed unanimously by the Committee and we all welcome that. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) have been in touch with her to explain that they had engagements which predated their membership of the Committee and that that was why they could not be here today.
1068 The Opposition welcome the Committee's recognition, in examining proposals for change, of the principles laid down by a distinguished predecessor of the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor). In his evidence to the Jopling Committee, he said:the position of Government must not be undermined and the Government of the day must still be able to get its business;the Opposition must have adequate opportunity to oppose and its legitimate rights must be sustained;back benchers must have adequate scope to raise matters of concern to them or their constituents, but a balance has to be struck between unlimited freedom for back benchers and the efficient operating of Parliament as a law-making body.
The Leader of the House has illustrated the difficulty of balancing competing claims. She has given examples of the type of demands that are made of the process of modernisation. The Committee's report reflects the principles laid down by my right hon. Friend.
What will he particularly helpful is the insistence that the various options for change should be tried out on an experimental basis and the view that comments from hon. Members and others will be an important part of any change. It has been interesting to receive comments from new Members and to set those alongside the views of more seasoned members of the Committee and others. I believe that the report is a little optimistic in the way that it thinks we can deal with the red-in-tooth-and-claw nature of political activity in the House. However, the experimental approach adopted will at least demonstrate those areas where easier progress can be made.
The Opposition's view has been guided consistently by the conviction that Parliament—the House of Commons and the other place—is one of the principal and foremost institutions of the British constitution. That constitution is rooted in the notion that Parliament is sovereign and that the laws of our land can be made and repealed only by Acts of that Parliament. It is a matter of regret that the Government, in their ill-thought-out dash for votes in Scotland and Wales, have not so far allowed sufficient time for consideration of the implications for Parliament and for our constitution of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
I believe that the Government's plans for the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into British law call into question the sovereignty of Parliament. In contrast, our attitude to reform has always been that change to one of the principle pillars of our constitution should be evolutionary. So far, thankfully, that has been the Modernisation Committee's approach. We are not opposed to sensible examination of the way in which Parliament works. Indeed, it has been under Conservative Governments that some of the most far-reaching and beneficial constitutional reforms have been introduced—notably, the Jopling reforms on which the Committee has built its work.
§ Mr. Forth
My right hon. Friend has expressed her support for the report, but does she share my unease about the analysis in paragraph 8? It says:The Committee stage of a Bill, which is meant to be the occasion when the details of the legislation are scrutinised, has often tended to be devoted to political partisan debate rather than constructive and systematic scrutiny.Does my right hon. Friend share my problem with that, which is that that analysis, which is fairly accurate, is based on the experience of the last few Parliaments, 1069 when the Labour party was in opposition? Does she share my regret that we have not had an opportunity to see how the new parliamentary regime works with we Conservatives in opposition, where we might oppose more effectively? Does she therefore share my unease at the proposals emerging from the one-sided analysis?
§ Mrs. Shephard
As I said, I think that the report is a little optimistic in the way in which it tends to ignore the political nature of activities in the House, which, after all, is one of the points of its existence. However, as we do not intend to be in opposition for very long, my right hon. Friend's anxiety is perhaps ill-founded and needless.
The previous Government produced a balanced package of improvements to parliamentary procedure in response to the Jopling report. They introduced more practical working hours, constituency Fridays, private Members' business on Wednesday mornings, more notice of business and recess dates, more voluntary timetabling of Bills and opportunities for the whole House to debate Select Committee reports.
I was most interested in what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) said about Select Committees. This is absolutely in parenthesis, but I, too, have my concerns—having been hauled up before Select Committees in various ministerial guises—about the ways in which some Select Committees go. I shall take careful note of the examples that she has drawn to the attention of the House to see what lessons can be learned when the Modernisation Committee considers Select Committees.
§ Ms Walley
It is crucial that Select Committees play an important part in what goes on. I believe that the Environment Sub-Committee—a new Select Committee which has been set up since the election—along with the Public Accounts Committee, provided that it has adequate resources, could make important progress.
§ Mrs. Shephard
As I said, I am very interested in what the hon. Lady says. May I ask the Leader of the House whether we are to consider Select Committees eventually? There will be varied experiences among the Committee's members—hon. Members who have served on Committees, chaired Committees and been grilled by them. The examples quoted by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North are useful. There should be an opportunity to consider things in depth. Although I am not being asked to say all this, I do not think that Select Committees should be asked to respond instantly to the political flavour of the moment. Their work ought to be more on-going, but that has not always been so.
§ Mrs. Ann Taylor
The right hon. Lady asked about the modernisation of Select Committees. We shall, of course, have to decide that in due course. I hope that we will get around to considering Select Committees, but I do not regard it as an immediate priority—not least because I think that most people believe that Select Committees work quite well.
§ Mrs. Shephard
The right hon. Lady heard what her hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North said. Of course we have a great deal of work in front of us in any case before we get to Select Committees.
I was going through what the previous Government did in response to the Jopling report. It is worth mentioning that the Chairman of Ways and Means conveyed to the 1070 Modernisation Committee his view that the Jopling reforms have resulted in a marked improvement in the way in which business has been conducted in the House in recent years.
The Chairman of Ways and Means pointed out some of the strengths of the present system, such as the appointment of a separate Committee for each Bill, the fact that the process of detailed consideration and confrontation is carried out in public and the tradition of impartial chairmanship. He also pointed out that many of the existing flexibilities were not used fully. That is a really important point: it was flagged up by the Leader of the House and I hope that the Modernisation Committee will return to it. It is ludicrous that we are not using all the opportunities available to us, while trying to find new ones. I know that we shall return to that matter.
Some of the Committee's discussions have illustrated the inherent difficulties of introducing any change at all. The Government of the day—and certainly Ministers of any party—perceive any change as a threat to their ability to get legislation through. Opposition parties in turn are suspicious that any change might prejudice their ability either to criticise or to oppose. Some hon. Members—mostly, although not exclusively, the newer ones—have been at pains to point out the way in which parliamentary procedure is not always perceived flatteringly in the outside world. We have, however, all been able to agree that some practical change is possible. The fact that all changes will be introduced on an experimental basis is welcome.
The Modernisation Committee has sought to increase consultation with Members and the House as a whole before Bills are introduced, to allow time for Members to receive representations from interested parties, and to change procedures and, it must be said, the prevalent culture so that Bills can often be changed after their formal introduction. A macho attitude prevents such change from occurring. Pre-legislative scrutiny—there should be more of it and it should be more systematic—is intended to ease that process and, as the report said, make any change before the whole thing is set in concrete less of a climbdown for Ministers.
The Committee has sought to organise the business of the House so that activity is more evenly spaced throughout the year—although, frankly, that will be hugely difficult, given the competing claims already described by the Leader of the House. The Committee has also sought to maintain the flexibility that is obviously required in any legislative system to cope with an unforeseen situation that has to be legislated for. There have been many such examples in the previous Parliament and other Parliaments, and there will be examples in this one. It clearly makes much sense that there should be more opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation.
There should also be as much clarity as possible in proceedings, from the explanatory material published with Bills right through to the Order Paper. I am glad that the changes to the Order Paper have been well received.
There are ideas for more flexibility in the arrangements for Committee sittings and for experimenting with the ways in which a Standing Committee considers clauses in order to encourage more constructive consideration. All the ideas are sensible.
1071 The Opposition have made it clear that we would, however, strongly resist any suggestion that there should be change to what "Erskine May" callsthe regular practice for Government bills of first class constitutional importance to be committed to a Committee of the whole House".Our view to that effect is recorded in the Committee's report. We reject suggestions from some that there might somehow be problems with definition or with ordering such business or that the House is incapable of scrutinising such Bills adequately and in detail.
The Leader of the House has chaired the Committee with skill and, on occasion, the patience of at least a minor saint—and that was only with those on her own side. I name no names. We on the Opposition Benches accept the report, while putting down a marker about our reservations on the treatment of constitutional Bills. Clearly, the report is one thing and what the Government intend to do about it is another. The Leader of the House gave some indications in her opening speech of the Government's ideas.
The Chairmen's Panel has expressed its view on the report's implications for the Chairman's role. We must take great notice of that. The work that our Chairmen do as impartial arbiters in Committees and elsewhere in the House is of inestimable importance. We need to take very seriously the points that they make.
I must give notice that we shall scrutinise the Standing Orders carefully when they are eventually placed before the House, in the interests both of the official Opposition and of the House. In particular, we shall examine the proposals for changes in timetabling business to see whether what is proposed will achieve a more consensual approach to a contentious and potent political issue or whether we are merely considering more user-friendly terminology.
One way of achieving the genuine consensus described in the report might be for timetabling motions to be required to be submitted in the name not only of the Leader of the House but of the shadow Leader of the House and the leaders of other Opposition parties. There will be time to discuss all that. Perhaps the Leader of the House might like to consider it.
Mention has been made of changes in attitude towards debate in the House. As we are talking about matters of great importance to the House, I must express some regret at the reputation that, sadly, the Government have earned already for a contempt for Parliament and all its works. I must make my feelings clear, although I will be brief. It is a matter of regret that Prime Minister's questions take place only once a week. It is a matter of regret that the announcement of the operational independence of the Bank of England was made not by a statement to the House but by a press conference. It is a matter of regret that we had an announcement of the Government's policy on the European single currency, again not by a statement but by telephone calls by the Chancellor's press secretary. Those calls caused enormous fluctuations on the equity markets, affecting the value of the future pensions of millions of people. Other unfortunate blips have occurred when, for example, the Minister of Transport did not turn up for an Adjournment debate at all.
Members of Parliament have not been elected to be made over—a process to which the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) referred this 1072 afternoon—or to be on message, or to stay submissively silent until paged to speak. That is not what their constituents expect and is not what parliamentary democracy is about. Sensible, evolutionary reform can strengthen our parliamentary democracy: we support it. Contempt for Parliament and its conventions weakens our democracy and our country: we will not allow that to happen.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
It is clear that my right hon. Friend intends to be a reforming Leader of the House, following in the footsteps of Dick Crossman and Norman St. John-Stevas. The best time to undertake reform is in the early years of a Parliament and I am pleased that she is doing so.
I wish to make one point about our practice of calling hon. Members by their constituencies rather than by their names. I have always been proud to be the Member of Parliament for Ashton-under-Lyne. It is my constituency and I am here not because I am myself, but because I represent the people of my constituency. It would be a retrograde step if we were to abandon that practice.
The House is now a more full-time House than it has been in the past. One example is that, when I arrive in the morning, at 9 o'clock or sometimes earlier, many more hon. Members are around. Incidentally, the Vote Office is closed until 9.30 am, and we should change that so that it is open earlier for Members' convenience.
The main burden of today's debate is the scrutiny of legislation. We must remember that Standing Committees are really ad hoc committees and their members do not necessarily have any relevant expertise. They are brought together to scrutinise some legislation without necessarily having much of a background in the subject. Of course, some members will have some background knowledge, but the advantage of the involvement of a Select Committee is that its members do have a background in the subject.
The big problem with the way in which Standing Committees currently operate is that it involves the silent being hectored by the voluble. Members of the Standing Committee from the governing party do nothing, although they may be very able and well equipped to contribute. It is a major scandal that our legislation on important issues is dealt with in that way, but that has happened because the Opposition's principal weapon is the power of delay. The best example of the use of that power that I can recall was by lain Macleod in 1967, when we introduced a Standing Committee to scrutinise the Finance Bill. Before that, Finance Bills were always taken on the Floor of the House. The then Leader of the House, Dick Crossman, suggested that the Finance Bill be taken in Committee, but that was wildly resented by the Opposition. Iain Macleod, the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, spent one and half days in Committee Room 10 talking about the temperature of the Room. That was very effective, because it brought about the realisation that the Opposition had rights. As a result, a sensible and effective compromise was reached, whereby the Opposition could choose matters for debate on the Floor of the House and other matters could be taken in Committee.
The problem now is that the Opposition's power of delay has been eroded, through the increased use of the guillotine. The Whips have also tended to use their power 1073 to ensure that dissentient voices are not heard so frequently in Standing Committees. As a result, Standing Committees no longer resemble the bodies that existed in the past. I well recall the Rooker-Wise amendment, because I was the Financial Secretary to the Treasury at the time. The two Members of Parliament after whom the amendment was named could not be shut up, and when I heard that they were to be members of the Standing Committee I went straight to the Chief Whip and said that that would cost us £500 million. The actual cost was £1 billion, but those two hon. Members were right. However, that situation is not likely to happen often.
Another problem is that senior Ministers do not attend Standing Committees as they used to in the past. The Chancellor of the Exchequer used to handle the Finance Bill. Now it is not even the second Minister who attends, but the third Minister. If a senior Minister is present and has to go through the night, he or she tends to be more convinced by the Opposition's arguments. Now, the third Minister may complain about being kept all night, but the Secretary of State in charge gets up in the morning and waves the objections aside. That is understandable, because he or she wants the legislation to go through.
I have come to the conclusion, much to the disgust of many of my right hon. Friends, that the hopes of compromises in Committee have had their day. The Opposition can no longer use the power of delay in the same way, so we should now ensure that legislation is sensibly examined. On several occasions, legislation has fallen seriously below an acceptable standard, and that has happened when a Government have been sure that their actions were right and the Opposition—having only a truncated power of delay—fail to make any changes to it.
As a result, I now believe that timetabling is essential. Timetabling can be to the advantage of the Opposition, as well as the Government, because there must be a trade-off. The Government get their business through and the Opposition get time. That was the obvious trade-off in the past. In the past, the system was informal, but we must make it a little more formal, because the Opposition have the right to put their view and to be heard. I believe that timetabling will be the crucial issue affecting legislation. The most important date in the timetable is that for the Report stage, because a timetable is not so necessary after that.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is right to say that we need the confidence to undertake experiments. Not every aspect of the modernisation process will be right first time, but if we allow for some variation we can find ways to make more permanent changes. That is the way to proceed.
I wish to deal with one or two particular aspects of the very useful Select Committee report. Paragraph 37 talks about Acts being written in clear language, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House referred rightly to explanatory notes. The net could be more widely used, but a major problem is how the notes will be looked at by lawyers and others implementing the Acts and considering the intentions of Parliament.
I have particular personal experience of that because, 20-odd years ago, I introduced the benefits-in-kind legislation, under which people were to be charged income tax on the benefits that they received during their work. We went right through several nights running and I—with a small team in those days—tried to explain why 1074 the measure was essential. To my surprise, many years later a procedure was introduced whereby what I said became a part of the intentions of the Government and was used to interpret the Act. I had to look at what I had said at 3 o'clock in the morning in the hope that it made sense. Luckily, it did. I am not sure how fortuitous that was.
Clearly, Ministers replying now try—as they should—to expound the principles behind an amendment or other measure, but they should try also to achieve some compromise wherever possible. If they have to bear it in mind that what they say will be interpreted in this way as part of the Act, they will be more constrained. I am uneasy about the fact that the explanatory notes—which are not intended to be a part of the Act—could be shown to give an understanding of what was behind Parliament's intentions. This was never considered 20 years ago, but is now part of the fabric of our legal system.
Paragraph 97 of the Modernisation Committee's report suggests that the Chairman could be given new powers to limit the length of speeches. Clearly, that would apply only when a filibuster was under way. In my experience of Standing Committees, that is much of the time. A greater problem is that, in a Committee, one can speak more than once. That is justifiable, because the point of a Committee is that, after listening to colleagues and to Opposition Members, one may find something that, perhaps, one had not thought of before. How will the Chairman be certain that a filibuster is taking place? Our colleagues are ingenious; they do not read out the telephone directory, as they know that the Chairman would not allow it.
The report referred to Select Committees meeting during the recess, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House referred to the importance of Select Committees. Select Committees have met during the recess—one of the great things we saw was the enthusiasm for Select Committees, which I wholly admire. We need to improve their work. When I gave evidence to the Nolan committee, I found that, when I arrived there at 9 o'clock in the morning, the minutes of the previous day's meeting were available. When we have a Select Committee, we receive the minutes three weeks later. I know that special arrangements can be made to have them within 24 hours, but even that is not good enough. I spoke to Lord Nolan and those involved in his committee to see how they achieved that. I shall visit my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to discuss this—I do not expect an answer now.
What happens in Select Committees is important—frequently more important than occasions on the Floor of the House—and we need to get their proceedings involved in the parliamentary process. Hon. Members must come here with evidence from Committees and integrate it into a consideration of the political problems of the day. Many members of a Select Committee—Chairmen included—are asked to comment on the previous day's proceedings. They must be careful because, although they have privilege in the Committee, they do not when they appear on radio or television or are reported in the newspapers. They may not be sure exactly what was said, unless they have the minutes.
The reports could be part of the general structure of the parliamentary day, rather than the cold porridge that so many of them are now. Some of the most important 1075 evidence is not read. Who will read it three weeks' later—unless one has a particular interest? If yesterday's evidence were available, people would queue up to read it.
We must look at ways of monitoring and following up the reports of Select Committees. I know that we have three days of debates—I welcome that—but a proper follow-up is just as important. Was the Committee right in coming to a conclusion? Only time can tell. If we want to see what time has told, we must see what has happened in the meantime. The Public Accounts Commission has a superb system, involving the National Audit Office, to deal with 50 reports every year. If the Government agree with the Committee's conclusions, the NAO checks that they have implemented what they said they would. If they disagree, we see next year whether the Committee was right, or the Government.
§ Mr. Sheldon
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
I hope that the Liaison Committee will act as a clearing house for some of the new ideas. The Treasury Select Committee is undertaking what may be called "confirmatory hearings", and those will be useful in examining the Committee's role in some matters. I shall consult my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to discuss some possibilities. Clearly, she intends to be a reforming Leader of the House. I welcome her appointment and her actions here.
§ Madam Speaker
I will call the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) next. May I just say that many right hon. and hon. Members are interested in taking part in the debate? Unless those speaking discipline themselves, all Members will not be called. I would not dream of inhibiting the right hon. Member for South Norfolk.
§ Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk)
I shall try to be as concise as possible, Madam Speaker. I speak as a supporter of appropriate modernisation, as I hope I demonstrated when I was Leader of the House—not least in setting up the Jopling Committee. My only regret about that is that there was insufficient time between the Committee's report and the 1992 general election to enable me to implement its recommendations.
I take the point of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) that it is sometimes easier to get changes through in the earlier part of a Parliament than the latter part. I was pleased that my long-standing friend and ex-colleague Tony Newton, as Leader of the House, was able to make the reforms, with great co-operation from the present Leader of the House.
I wish to make a few general points before I deal with one or two specific proposals. First, I want to refer to the importance of carrying the House on any changes. This is partly a cultural point and partly a practical point.
1076 Paragraph 17 of the report says:Another major factor in the largely inflexible approach to legislation adopted hitherto is essentially that of the culture of the House.I agree with the point about culture, but I do not think that we have been inflexible: many changes have been made and the report builds on them. The paragraph is absolutely right when it says thatthere must be a will in all parts of the House to achieve cooperation wherever it is possible.I am glad that the Leader of the House acknowledged that when she spoke about good will on all sides.
The will to co-operate was in my mind when I set up the Jopling Committee and it is why I sought to have hon. Members of all parties and of different ages and experience on it. Many people then thought—as the Leader of the House said was thought about the present Committee—that it would not be possible to reach agreement in that Committee, but it was, and that was of huge benefit in getting the changes through.
When I was an Opposition Whip, then a Government Whip, then a Minister in various Departments, before becoming Leader of the House, I was frequently struck by the fact that the procedures of the House are such that a determined minority—often a very small one—can hold up processes and make change almost impossible. Many who were then Opposition Members were expert at that, and one had to take that into account when making changes.
I underline the importance of what my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) said when she stressed the importance of good will, especially among Government Back Benchers, and of the Government's approach to such matters in the House.
I was very disappointed when I heard a Labour Member say, I think, "Now you've spoilt it" while my right hon. Friend was speaking. That comment showed a potentially dangerous misunderstanding of the point that she was making. The hon. Gentleman who said it should be aware of that. There are all sorts of legitimate opportunities to hold matters up, sometimes simply to express the irritation of Members of Parliament who feel that they are being bypassed or that their role is being diminished.
Some of the abruptness and impatience that we have witnessed from the Government, supported by their Back Benchers, should not occur, because, if we are to get the changes through, as we all want, the Government must understand the sensitivities. If there is a feeling that Parliament is being bypassed or ignored or that its role is being diminished by the Government, it is less easy to put into effect the practical, commonsense changes that we think will benefit the House. The Government should be willing to put up with the odd filibuster, because there may be a good reason for it.
Paragraph 7 of the report refers toa distinct culture prevalent throughout Whitehall that the standing and reputation of Ministers have been dependent on their Bills getting through largely unchanged.That may be true to some extent, but civil servants also feel that their reputation depends on resisting every amendment, even purely technical ones, to a Bill that they have been involved in drafting. As a Minister in charge of Bills I noticed that "Resist" was written above almost every amendment, even if the point was technical.
1077 If Parliament is to play its proper role in scrutinising legislation, Ministers must be willing to overrule their civil servants, who in turn should not feel that every bit of a Bill that they have drafted is inviolable. Sometimes a Bill comes back from another place with about 500 amendments; how much better it would be if they were made earlier.
I agree with all the criteria set out in paragraph 14, although some are more important than others. I want particularly to stress thatAll parts of a Bill must be properly considered".That will lead me on later to a point or two about timetabling.
Paragraph 14(d) caught my eye. It says:The time and expertise of Members must be used to better effect.I was glad that the report recognised Members' expertise. That brings me to a wider point, which is perhaps more relevant to the Nolan committee. I have always been a strong advocate of the House being composed of people with outside expertise, not derived only from their constituents, that they can bring to the workings of the House, especially in legislation. That is why I have always strongly advocated Members continuing to have outside interests. The report acknowledges that their expertise can be relevant on Bills and in other ways.
I strongly agree with the report's approach on flexibility and its recognition that not all Bills are the same, that some may be treated differently from others, and that we can experiment. One or two of the proposals will probably die a death in due course, but I am perfectly happy for us to experiment with them to find out whether they have a contribution to make.
The Government must recognise that several of the recommendations have a considerable time implication. If the Government are to implement them thoroughly, more parliamentary time will have to be given to Bills and there will have to be less legislation. That applies in particular to some of the suggestions in relation to First Reading.
§ Mrs. Ann Taylor
The right hon. Gentleman says that if we give more time to certain Bills we will have to extend the overall time and have less legislation. Does he agree that in the strict routine that we have for legislation we do not always need to give matters as much time as we do? We are very good at wasting time in the House. The fact that we want to extend time in one area does not mean that it could not be saved in other areas.
If we had more draft Bills and early legislation and got the legislation nearer to how it should be at that stage—I believe that the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) agreed with that—it might go through more quickly. We need to be flexible and do what is most appropriate for each specific Bill.
§ Mr. MacGregor
One of my hobbies is mind reading, and as I made my last remark I could almost read the right hon. Lady's mind. I knew what she was thinking and I recognise her point, which is why I was treading fairly carefully. She is right in some respects, but I suspect that, in practice, when there is draft legislation followed by the normal processes, those processes may not necessarily be all that much shorter. The great merit will be that the House will pass more considered legislation. I hope that that will lead to our not having to revisit the legislation.
1078 One of our defects—I have been guilty of it myself as Leader of the House—is that we spend so little time considering the revisions by the House of Lords. It is a bit of a scandal that we sometimes make a large number of Lords amendments with hardly any consideration. Many of the amendments are technical, granted, but not all. We agree that the way in which both Houses consider legislation may become lengthier, but will be better.
I am not entirely enamoured of one or two of the specific proposals. I am not sure that they will be a permanent feature. I strongly agree with the drift of the report that permanent legislative Committees are not really the answer, for all the reasons set out in the report. I have some doubts whether the departmental Select Committee is the right place to consider legislation in draft because the membership is already decided for reasons other than the specific piece of legislation.
It may be better to have an ad hoc Select Committee, as the report recommends, because it will be possible to appoint people with specific expertise—in pensions, for example, as the Leader of the House said. The ad hoc Select Committee is probably the right way to take this forward, and 1 would like some experiments on that. I am doubtful about several of the First Reading Committee proposals, but let us see how they work.
I particularly favour two proposals: the ad hoc Select Committee, on which I do not intend to elaborate further, and the Special Standing Committee. As a very junior Minister—Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry—I took through what I believe to have been the first Bill with a Special Standing Committee procedure attached to it. It concerned international exploitation of mineral resources, in particular manganese nodules, in the sea. It was a fairly technical Bill but interesting for me as a Minister and, I am sure, for all the Back Benchers. It was a worthwhile experience, and I am rather sad that we have not used the procedure more.
The Bill required many representations from big international companies and from the many scientists who were directly affected by it. The Special Standing Committee procedure, whereby Ministers and Back Benchers are able to question witnesses, meant that we all learned a great deal. I think that I learned more from that process than from the departmental briefing. We got agreement on some of the issues and therefore did not have to deal with them in the Bill's later stages.
§ Sir Peter Emery
May I point out to my right hon. Friend that the recommendations for a Special Standing Committee procedure were made by the Procedure Committee in 1988–89 but seldom, if ever, carried out by the Government of which he was a member?
§ Mr. MacGregor
I said that sometimes I plead guilty. The Bill that I took through had an earlier form of Special Standing Committee procedure because it was in the early 1980s, before that recommendation. The principle and the benefits were the same.
I strongly agree with the report's sensible suggestions in paragraph 44 on greater flexibility on Special Standing Committee procedures. In the past, it has always been thought that Special Standing Committees are of greater relevance to non-political or highly technical Bills. They are relevant in those cases, but there will be politically contentious Bills that are not of the type to which we have 1079 previously applied the procedure but in respect of which there is much expert outside interest. The ability to probe witnesses in front of the Committee greatly adds to the strength of the process. I hope that it will be regarded as a measure not only for technical Bills but for others: some pensions Bills are an obvious example.
I concur with the widely expressed criticisms of the methods that we have used in Standing Committees. I do not need to rehearse the arguments because we are all familiar with them. We know how we got into situations where large parts of Bills were not considered and why they had to be guillotined and so forth. I believe—I said this when I was Leader of the House, although I know that it is not accepted by all right hon. and hon. Members—that timetabling has to be the right way to ensure that all parts of Bills are properly considered. That was the target that the Modernisation Committee set itself.
The result of the Jopling report was a voluntary agreement on timetabling in the previous Parliament, which I think worked well. It was greatly to the benefit of the House and, above all, to proper scrutiny of Bills. I am not sure that the more detailed and formal format now proposed is necessary, but I am again prepared to see how it works. I recognise that there may be contentious Bills where such a format is necessary to get agreement. In most cases, I hope that it can be done through the usual channels as in the previous Parliament. The matter lies at the heart of proper scrutiny of Bills and it is therefore important, whether done formally or informally, that it is carried through.
On the carry-over of Bills and paragraph 102 of the report, I think that it is right to have the flexibility that applies to private and hybrid Bills, not least because it is one way of handling the too frequent problem where many amendments come back from the House of Lords and we rush them through in the last three or four days. No one could argue that that is satisfactory. The problem arises because, inevitably, some Bills will be introduced later in the Session; they cannot all be done earlier. A genuine pressure on time causes that. Used sensibly, this proposal is a way of ensuring better scrutiny at that stage. That is why I have one point of doubt about another part of the report.
The report suggests that the new approach should apply if there isidentification by the Government as early as possible of any Bill it wished to be subject to a carry-over procedure",andthat the procedure should only be used for Bills which are either to be subject to select committee type scrutiny or are introduced after a certain period in the session".That is unnecessarily restrictive.
There may be occasions when a major Bill that is introduced early in the Session, but is not identified as one to which the procedure should apply undergoes many changes—especially in the other place. It may be better to allow a limited amount of carry-over than do what we have done in the past—give no attention to what the other place has done and have no opportunity to discuss the changes that it has made. I am in favour of the principle, but I hope that there will be flexibility.
1080 I hope that my remarks show that I applaud the Committee's work. The fact that it is unanimous is highly desirable. Above all, it will need good will, not least on the Government's side, to ensure that the new reforms work.
§ Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on the Modernisation Committee's report. The Prime Minister has rightly said, both before and since the general election, that if we are to improve democracy we must address the problems of democracy in the way the House functions. That is what the Modernisation Committee is addressing. There is much that we will have to do.
The right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) made several points. I welcome his comments on rollover; if anything, the report is too restrictive. I recognise, however, which it is an important change of principle. It may be something that we must test before gradually moving further in that direction.
I have said several times that people elect a Parliament for five years, not one. The Government could have a much more balanced programme than having all Second Readings at one time of year, then having Committees before sending Bills to the other place, bringing them back here and causing an unnecessary crush.
When we debated the railway privatisation legislation, the other place would carry amendments and send them to us. We did not know what they had carried, and we were asked to vote on amendments that had not even been printed. That was nonsense. I have questioned—some might consider this heretical—whether we need a Queen's Speech every year. Why not just have one at the start of Parliament? If we must have annual speeches, why not announce that the Government will introduce legislation, but continue with other legislation? I see no reason for not moving in that direction.
Hon. Members have commented on Select Committees. I served for a number of years on the Environment Committee under the chairmanship of Sir Hugh Rossi. Some 15 years ago, we produced a tremendous number of reports on environmental issues such as acid rain, nuclear waste and river pollution. People condemned them as outrageous, but most of them were subsequently accepted and they are now considered the norm.
Select Committees do a tremendous amount of good work, but the resources available to them for expert advice are a little too tight. I do not say that we should go mad, but I hope that we shall ensure that Select Committees are adequately resourced to do their job. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) rightly said, we must ensure that all Select Committee reports have an opportunity to be debated and are monitored at a future date to see what effect they have had.
We sometimes allow people outside this place to judge Parliament by what is done in the Chamber, whereas much important work is done in Committee. The other day, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that some 467 hon. Members were serving on various Committees at that point, yet most people, even if they read the newspapers, do not know what those Committees do. We must therefore ensure that people are better informed.
1081 My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House referred to voting. The third voting desk has certainly helped. She said that it had alleviated the problem; it has not solved the problem, however, and we should not pretend that it has. I dread the day when the Conservatives vote with Labour and opposition comes only from the Liberal Democrats—the crush would be unbearable.
We should try to maintain the principle that votes are taken in person in the Chamber or close to it. We should not introduce desktop voting in various parts of the House. While it would be wrong to jump to conclusions, the Committee should look further into all these issues.
My right hon. Friend also referred to European legislation. The last Procedure Committee produced a unanimous report on European legislation which I hope will be used as a base for the Modernisation Committee's work. The Committee did a lot of the spade work, so some repetition could be avoided if its report is taken as a starting point.
There are differing views on the parliamentary day and year. Some want to start work on a Monday morning, but others who live a long distance away would then have to travel to London on a Sunday, which would be detrimental. The 2.30 pm start on Mondays, whatever happens on other days, should remain. Some people believe that finishing at 7 o'clock on Thursdays would enable everybody to get away to do constituency work on Fridays. That is nonsense for those who depend on public transport. They would have to use their own cars if they wanted to return to their constituencies on a Thursday night and use constituency Fridays fully. When I have a constituency Friday, I try to put four or five appointments in my diary to use the day fully, but I cannot rely on public transport and have to use my own car in both directions.
Another difficulty, which arose just after the general election, is where hon. Members can speak from in this Chamber. It is ridiculous that so few seats are available when there are other seats in the Chamber where additional microphones could be installed to enable more hon. Members to exercise their right to speak.
Some might say that the Chamber is rarely full, but it is wrong that a percentage of hon. Members should be excluded from their democratic right to speak in Parliament. A couple of weeks ago, I came into the Chamber for Prime Minister's Question Time half an hour beforehand and found the Labour Benches already full. That barred me from the opportunity to speak, had I wanted to do so. We should extend the available speaking places to other parts of the Chamber.
We should also consider 10-minute time limits for most speeches and review the rules on interventions. It must be recognised that interventions should be relevant and brief. The character and debating style of the House are spoilt by people delivering 10-minute, sterile speeches, with no to and fro in the debate. We must maintain some flexibility.
The report is not one which the Government can accept, because it is not just for the Government. Some aspects are, because they initiate the legislation, but the Opposition have responsibilities too, if we are to proceed positively. Indeed, every Member of Parliament has a responsibility to make our procedures work if we are to proceed as the report suggests. If we want better 1082 government, better legislation, better debate, and an Opposition able to look at different parts of Bills properly, we need to proceed as the report suggests.
I remember my first full Bill in the House. It was the Transport Bill of 1985, on which I spoke for four hours in Committee without adding one iota to the debate. Many important clauses were not debated as a result.
This proposal is sensible for good government and good legislation and it gives the Opposition, whichever party they happen to be, a fair opportunity.
§ Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). He serves with me on the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons and was an astute Member of my Procedure Committee for many years in the previous Parliaments. He would support my claim that nobody has been a greater procedural reformer in the House than I have tried to be over the 14 years that I chaired the Procedure Committee.
I remember discussing with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) the need to set up a Jopling-type Committee—for example, with a number of Privy Counsellors, and the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party—rather than leave everything with the Procedure Committee. That was so that greater weight could be put into the recommendations and so that the Committee had the strength to command the approval of the vast majority of the House.
It has been pointed out that it takes very little to stop procedural reform. I remind new Members that Jopling was delayed for two years because of the conservatism of one particular Member of Parliament. At that time, he sat on the Opposition Front Bench next to the Gangway. Don Dixon was Deputy Chief Whip of the Labour party. Only when we could swing him round could we proceed with Jopling. We therefore need reports that can be carried with the vast majority of opinion in the affirmative.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
I remind the House that Mr. Don Dixon, now the noble Lord Dixon, was not swung round at all. He is still very much averse to the Jopling proposals. I remind the House that the need for Jopling arose because the Government left the reports issued so regularly and consistently by the Procedure Committee, of which I was also a member, on the shelf gathering dust.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I do not disagree with anything that the hon. Gentleman says. It only goes to show that proposals need Government support, whichever Government are in power, and I shall fight this Government as I fought my own to advance the procedures.
I should like to pose a few questions—I do not know who is to wind up. I am delighted that the report expresses a unanimous view that we must find procedures to ensure that all parts of a Bill are debated in Committee before it comes back to the House. It was a crying disgrace that legislation used to come back on Report when perhaps only a third—or sometimes a quarter—of the Bill had been considered in Committee. That is not the way in which the Opposition should perform, and I would not want the Conservative party in opposition to perform in 1083 that manner. We are here to try to make the best possible legislation, and that must mean that all sections of a Bill must be considered in Committee.
I am sure that, like me, the whole House welcomes the Committee's suggestions on pre-legislative scrutiny. Such scrutiny would make legislation much better, so when will we start? When will one or two Bills that the Government have in train be considered by a pre-legislative Committee, so that we can carry forward the suggestions made in paragraphs 19 and 20 of the report?
I come now to paragraph 43. I am delighted that, as I pointed out in my intervention on the right hon. Member for South Norfolk—
§ Sir Peter Emery
I am sorry—the right hon. Member is a close friend, if I may say so without being misinterpreted. The Special Standing Committee procedure has been in the Standing Orders for long enough and the report urges that it should be used more often. I am sorry to say that we have not yet seen it used by the Government.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I know that it is early days yet, but a lot of legislation is coming through now and I hope to receive an assurance that some of it will go to a Special Standing Committee.
Paragraphs 83 and 95 deal with Committee procedure and Committees on European and secondary legislation. Way back in June, we were told that the Government would consider and report on that subject, but we have seen nothing yet. May we put a rocket under the Government so that they express their view and allow that aspect of the report to be carried forward?
I hope that the very sensible suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk that Lords amendments could be sent back to the original Committee for consideration, so that they do not have to be galloped through on the Floor of the House, is accepted. Let us make certain that that comes about.
I have one slight worry. I was willing to go along with the proposal on enabling Bills to be carried over from one Session to the next, but it is imperative that, by agreeing to that, the Opposition do not let the Government off the hook and so allow the Government to play legislation any way they please for however long they want. Such practice is to the detriment both of good legislation and of the Opposition. I understand that if a Bill is introduced late in a Session, there might be an argument for carrying it over, but we must look carefully at such a recommendation, to ensure that it does not emasculate the power of the Opposition.
I now refer to points relating to the Chairmen's Panel. In common with the hon. Member for Burnley, other hon. Members might welcome powers being given to Chairmen to limit the length of speeches in Committees. It is interesting that the Chairmen's Panel went further than the Select Committee and suggested thatthe power to limit the length of speeches should apply to Ministers and other frontbench spokesmen1084 and not only to Back Benchers. That idea from the Chairmen's Panel is revolutionary, but it is nevertheless interesting and we should bear it in mind.
§ Mr. MacGregor
I understand the reasons behind that suggestion, but I have always felt that the difficulty facing Ministers is that so many hon. Members want to intervene and probe the Minister on the legislation or whatever is being discussed that their speeches are inevitably lengthened. Will my right hon. Friend bear that in mind?
§ Sir Peter Emery
I entirely agree with my close and right hon. Friend. However, like the hon. Member for Burnley, I believe that if a time limit is applied, additional time should be allowed when interventions use up part of the allotted time.
We suggested that the Opposition should have access to advisers in Committees, but the Chairmen's Panel has said that that might be complicated and difficult. The Select Committee should look again at that suggestion—the idea behind it is correct, but I understand the Chairmen's point.
It is not my job, as a member of the Select Committee, to put forward new ideas, but I have one that has been a hobby-horse for some time. We have a large number of Select Committees whose members work immensely hard. The Leader of the House tells me that nearly 470 hon. Members sit on such Committees, but how many of their reports are debated on the Floor of the House? If we are lucky, we get about six debates on departmental Select Committee reports scattered throughout the Session, through what used to be called Supply day procedure, although we are now hoping to use some of the Wednesday morning slots. Have we not reached the point where we should set up a "Select Committee Grand Committee" in which every Select Committee report could be debated—a Grand Committee with perhaps 50 members with voting rights and every hon. Member having the right to attend and speak? Every recommendation or report from a Select Committee would go to that Grand Committee, thereby ensuring that the work of the few could be properly debated and considered on behalf of the whole House.
That is all I want to say for now. I hope that it will do nothing to detract from her popularity on the Government Benches, but I congratulate the Leader of the House on having conducted the chairmanship of the Modernisation Committee with charm, elegance and a great deal of efficiency. I am most grateful to her.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
I am aware that I have already spoken on several occasions during this Parliament; on at least one of those occasions I spoke at considerable length. I want to assure the House that those speeches were not exercises in self-indulgence: I spoke because I needed to and I spoke at length because I needed to cover the subject. On this occasion, once again, I shall speak not because I want to be in the Chamber but because I have a job to do. I must explain that I am speaking as a member of the Chairmen's Panel. I have consulted collectively with my colleagues—and individually, in and out of formal session—and it would be remiss of me if I did not draw attention to some of the points that cause us concern as Chairmen.
1085 I remind the House that members of the Chairmen's Panel commit themselves to sitting—as you do, Mr. Deputy Speaker—throughout the proceedings of a Committee, unable to walk in or out of the Committee Room as they might wish. They must stay there whether they like it or not. They must stay awake and alert. They must exercise good humour, patience and diligence. They must do all that with the good grace that you, your colleagues and Madam Speaker exercise in the Chamber—not an inconsiderable responsibility.
Chairmen do so because they believe in the parliamentary process, not because they are committed to a party political alliance or line—they save that for other occasions. When they sit in the Chair, they exercise a stark level of clinical impartiality. I believe that, for the effort that they put in, they deserve the greatest attention. I pray for that attention now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) would berate me if I did not draw attention to the following points. We concern ourselves with the interests of the individual Back Bencher and the protection of those interests. There is a fear that concentration on the acceleration of business through the House and through its processes might to some extent damage and debilitate the interests of the individual Member when acting in an individual role.
Let me take an example. In paragraph 8 of our report, we plead for a Front-Bench spokesperson, when operating in Committee, to bear in mind the interests and views of the Members sitting behind him or her on the same side of the Committee. An unfortunate example of what can happen when that does not occur, which comes readily to mind, is what happened during the passage of the Bill that became the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, when we were discussing changes in firearms legislation as a direct result of the tragedy that occurred at Hungerford.
I was acting as Opposition Whip. Both sides of the Committee were split on the requirements of the legislation as laid down, and the Government probably had more of their Committee members opposing the proposals than they had supporting them. I believe that it was the first time in history that the Government lost their sittings motion at the first sitting, because there was such diversity of opinion.
If such a situation were repeated, one would need an assurance that the Front-Bench spokesmen would be prepared to heed—not necessarily accommodate in full agreement, but accommodate with some kind of presentational skills—views that were at variance with those expressed by the Government or with the Front-Bench policy statement. That would certainly apply if a time limit were to be imposed.
I take on board the comments made by the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) regarding time limits. We suggested that a similar limitation be placed on Ministers, because otherwise a Minister can take up almost the whole session. As my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) said, he spoke for four hours in Committee simply to take up time. Ministers can take four hours, whether or not they want to take up time. I believe that the record in Committee is 11 hours 25 minutes, during consideration of the Telecommunications Bill.
I believe, as do some of my colleagues, that if time limits are to be imposed on a Back-Bench Member, they should be imposed on the Minister—bearing in mind the 1086 fact that the Minister is able to speak more than once on any question. Indeed, one hopes that a similar privilege will be extended to Back-Bench Members, because points of clarification or points of explanation can come up in a debate. One cannot get up with a pat speech and give it and be sure that one has said everything, because one has not heard the response that will ensue in the flexible debate for which my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley pleaded.
One of the virtues of the House is the give and take of debate. Parliaments throughout the world envy our ability to debate across the Chamber—to give way and come back at one another and to create a flowing argument. If we are to conduct the line-by-line scrutiny that the Committee stage demands, we must foster and protect such flexibility.
§ Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)
I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman says about the importance of give and take in debate through interventions, but does he agree that introducing a time limit instantly kills debate? With a time limit of 10 minutes, which we sometimes have in the House, the Member who is speaking knows that he cannot afford to take interventions, because they would occupy too much of his time and might prevent him from making an important point. If we have time limits, we shall not have interventions and we shall not have the type of debate that the hon. Gentleman rightly wants. That is a serious problem.
§ Mr. Cook
Indeed it is. I have been a victim of that situation many times. If I were to express a personal view, which I will now, I would say that I do not believe in limitation of time. If one is to express a considered view, one must be given the time to express it clearly and understandably. Sadly, I am trying to represent the views of the Chairmen's Panel as they have been discussed in and out of session, so I am trying to do that authentically and with integrity, but on a personal note, I agree entirely.
Now you have made me lose my place—I do beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Now the right hon. Gentleman has caused me to search again for my links.
Paragraph 4 of the Chairmen's report says:We … do not think it appropriate for us to express any collective view on the merits or demerits of the main procedural changes proposed; those are matters for the House as a whole to resolve".However, the Chairmen then list a number of areas with which they take great issue.
The report pleads for an element of good will towards the Chairman. I say Chairman because it is called the Chairmen's Panel. It may be politically incorrect, but I think that it is the biblical sense of Chairman. We need good will anyway, do we not, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as Chairmen, sitting in that position of clinical impartiality? It is not always displayed, but it is always sought.
An important plea that we made, but which does not have total agreement in the panel, is for Standing Committees to be empowered to receive and publish written evidence. That is an important proposal, which could expedite the more careful and more comprehensive consideration of an issue under discussion and legislative consideration.
We are worried about what appears to be an attempt to limit probing amendments. Such an attempt would be understandable, because those who are experienced in 1087 Committee procedure know that sometimes amendments are tabled and discussed that appear to make no sense. However, such amendments facilitate discussion around facts that might not be elicited in any other way and often clarify the issue. We are concerned that that might become a concrete proposal and we believe that it would be difficult to adapt to that.
The Leader of the House referred to our suggestions that the proposals should be extended across the board and described us as wanting to be more adventurous. Perhaps we do, but there is a much more practical point. If we were to confine the exercise of the measures to any particular range of Committees, there is a chance that some hon. Members—whether experienced or inexperienced—would operate in ignorance of some of the practical consequences of applying those rules.
The report also suggests that the Opposition should have access to advisers. I am afraid that we strongly oppose that idea. There are other ways of dealing with the issue, and we do not believe that that suggestion should be accepted at this stage. I believe also that Select Committees, which are reactive at present, should be empowered to be proactive.
Paragraph 5 is the most important paragraph in the Chairmen's Panel report. The Leader of the House said that the report was useful and would be considered, but she did not refer to any specifics. I hope that my right hon. Friend will provide an assurance on paragraph 5, which states:A general acceptance that the changes now proposed will be subject to review, refinement or even rescission before being written into the permanent standing orders of the House will be welcome.I hope to receive that acceptance tonight.
§ Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)
I apologise to the Leader of the House for the fact that I was not present at the beginning of the debate, and consequently did not hear most of her speech. I had to deal with the consequences of a factory closure in my constituency and the loss of 500 jobs. That situation obviously merited my grave attention.
I wish to make several general points before dealing with some matters in detail. I welcome the fact that we have a Modernisation Committee and I welcome the reports. It is most encouraging that, at the beginning of the Parliament, the Government are prepared to look seriously at these issues and the way in which we do things. No matter what the procedures are, there is always scope for improvement.
Several hon. Members have said that the proposals build upon Jopling. I am sorry that they do not involve a more serious reconsideration of Jopling, as some hon. Members have serious reservations about how Jopling has operated in practice. Some aspects have worked well, but we believe that it has taken far too many important matters from the Floor of the House to be dealt with elsewhere. Several hon. Members complained that matters handled elsewhere—in Select Committees, Standing Committees, and so on—do not receive the attention that they deserve from hon. Members or from the wider community, and are not considered properly.
I cannot remember which hon. Member said, "If you want to keep something secret, say it in a Committee." I have never had the pleasure of serving on a Select 1088 Committee, but I have enjoyed my service on several Standing Committees. My pleasure was increased considerably when I discovered that only one Standing Committee Hansard goes to Northern Ireland—and it is not available to the general public. Therefore, I can say whatever I like in Standing Committee and no one will ever know. That gives me a great deal of freedom—particularly in the many Committees where I am the only floating voter.
The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon)—I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber at present—referred to Standing Committees, and I thoroughly enjoyed his contribution. He made some extremely telling points and demonstrated that some of the problems about which hon. Members complain derive not from long-standing tradition but from changes made in the past 20 to 25 years.
Far too many changes made in the past few decades have diminished the role of the House and of individual Members, both Government and Opposition. The right hon. Gentleman concluded that legislative programming would be necessary to remedy that problem. He suggested that the trade-off would be that the Government get their legislation and the Opposition get their time.
I must qualify that point: the official Opposition may get their time, but what about the minority parties? Their number has increased, and is likely to increase still more if the electoral changes favoured by Labour Members are introduced. Unless I am mistaken, the composition of the Modernisation Committee follows the usual pattern: Government and Conservative Members and two token Liberal Democrats—Liberal Democrats are usually tokens in such circumstances.
What about the other minority parties? They are regularly ignored when the House conducts business and when Committees are formed. The record shows that minority parties usually get a raw deal in the membership of Select and Standing Committees. It is about time that someone gave greater consideration to minority parties, particularly when some parties—such as ours—are the Opposition in the regions of the United Kingdom that they represent. Paragraph 14(b) of the report states:The Opposition in particular and Members in general must have a full opportunity to discuss and seek to change provisions to which they attach importance.In Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionists are the largest Opposition party, and then there are the other Northern Ireland parties. The "Opposition" in the context of this place are not relevant to a lot of Northern Ireland business—although we do not exclude other parties. Unlike hon. Members from other regions, we do not object to the presence of other hon. Members in the Chamber for Northern Ireland debates or their involvement in Northern Ireland business. However, a proper approach in that area would be welcome.
I wish to raise several matters regarding the report on the legislative process, some of which will strike hon. Members as predictable—but they deserve to be made none the less. Paragraph 19 and the following paragraphs refer to pre-legislative scrutiny and attach that to the policy of publishing Bills in draft form. The Leader of the House referred to the publication of draft Bills, and the Government seem to think that the use of draft Bills will change legislative scrutiny significantly.
I wonder whether, in forming that view, any attention was paid to the experience in Northern Ireland, where we have had that practice for 20 years. Virtually all 1089 legislation has been published in draft for consultation, with periods that vary between a couple of months and more than a year between publication of the draft and enactment of the legislation.
The draft Bills published in Northern Ireland are not linked to any parliamentary procedure to provide scrutiny, so some of my comments must be qualified in that respect. If the Northern Ireland Office were honest and frank—it is difficult for it to admit this, and it runs against the culture of the Northern Ireland Office to do so—it would admit that the consultation procedures attached to draft legislation in Northern Ireland are a total failure. There is no significant response from society to draft Bills.
I speak not merely from my experience in the House, but from my experience before I came to the House, when I was concerned in my university and professional capacity with legislation in certain fields. Even with regard to legislation that was particularly relevant to the profession that I practised—legislation that might have directly affected the way in which members of the profession conducted their business and their livelihoods—it was enormously difficult to get people to look at draft legislation. It is only a draft. It might never happen and, if it does, who knows when—this week, next month or next year?
People would not look at draft legislation. Even if the legislation dealt with technical, legal matters that directly related to conveyancing—the source of income of most solicitors—one could not get them to look at drafts. The experience in Northern Ireland shows that society outside—I am not referring to what happens in the House—may not pay much attention to the publication of a draft.
It may be argued that the intention behind the proposal is to link the draft to some procedure in the House providing for scrutiny. That may make the process operate differently. I hope that it does. What is needed is a change in the way in which proposals for legislation evolve, not just before the publication of the legislation in draft or otherwise, but even beyond that point.
There is no reference in the report to what I consider to be the greatest problem: the passion that exists in the public service for secrecy—for not divulging to interested persons, whether in the House or outside, the way in which the thinking is evolving as legislative proposals are being drawn up.
In many respects, the enactment of a freedom of information Bill would be more significant in achieving the objectives of the report than any of the proposals contained in the report itself. An obligation on the Government to divulge more information and to let people see more clearly the Government's thinking and the reasons why they are developing particular proposals is more important than the parliamentary procedures.
I am not decrying the proposal for draft Bills. There must be a procedure linked to the legislation that gives adequate time for the examination not only of individual clauses, but of the thinking behind it. I regard as extremely important the suggestion that a Select Committee or a Special Standing Committee should examine legislation before the traditional Committee stage. That might be done in a First Reading Committee, or after Second Reading if a Special Standing Committee were used.
1090 It is important that such a procedure should provide an opportunity for the Committee to take evidence and to examine the thinking underlying the Bill, and that sufficient time should be allowed for that. Time is needed for members of the Committee to get to grips with the Bill, and for the Department to think.
If one tables amendments in a normal Standing Committee, the initial response from the Minister and the Department is to put up the shutters, not because they object to changes in the Bill, but because they need time to think. The Minister will never accept an amendment at first sight. He will need to take it back to his Department, and the Department may have to consult other Departments. There must be sufficient time for the Department to absorb the material and bring it back to the Committee. That is why we so often find that amendments tabled in this House are accepted in the other place. Between the two stages, the Government have had time to consider their response.
I strongly support the suggestions made in the report for procedures such as those that would follow from a Special Standing Committee or a Select Committee. They should be linked not to draft legislation, but to actual Bills, as that would concentrate the mind. There should be sufficient time between the hearings and the beginning of the usual Committee stage for hon. Members to study and absorb that material.
Paragraph 83 of the report, which relates to European legislation and UK delegated legislation, states:Of crucial and growing importance is the need to ensure proper scrutiny of the other forms of legislation with which the House has to deal, namely European legislation and United Kingdom secondary legislation.I was disappointed to find that it omitted all reference to primary legislation relating to Northern Ireland. That is a scandal. The right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) said that it was a crying disgrace when major parts of legislation go through the House without the clauses being examined and debated. That crying disgrace has applied to all primary legislation dealing with Northern Ireland for two decades.
Acres of Northern Ireland legislation have passed through the House without being debated or examined. I refer to primary legislation—Northern Ireland Orders in Council. On the current Order Paper, among the remaining orders to be considered are five Northern Ireland Orders in Council.
I remind hon. Members that, despite the use of the term Orders in Council, that is not delegated legislation. Northern Ireland Orders in Council are primary legislation, yet they will be enacted without being considered. There might be a brief debate in Committee, along the lines of a Second Reading debate, but, with few exceptions, Northern Ireland legislation is never subjected to Committee examination. That is a crying disgrace.
I shall not labour the point, except to say that we know that this Government will not have any better answer to the problem than the previous Government had. They were never able to justify the practice or put up any argument worth listening to. Ministers in the previous Government came to the Dispatch Box and brazened it out, year after year. Sadly, I think that the Labour Government will prove to be no better.
There is no excuse for substandard legislation. The existence of a separate statute book for Northern Ireland makes no more difference with regard to Northern Ireland 1091 legislation than does the parallel situation with regard to Scottish legislation. A separate statute book in Scotland is maintained through normal legislation in the House. There is no excuse for what has happened for the past 20 years in respect of Northern Ireland legislation.
The problem must be dealt with. The report of the Hansard Society commission on the legislative process states in paragraph 363, which refers to the representations received from my colleagues and other parties:We hope that their special problems will be considered sympathetically—especially the case for returning to legislating for Northern Ireland by Acts rather than by Orders.That report was published in 1992. Unfortunately, the previous Government failed to give sympathetic consideration to that crying disgrace, as the Hansard Society recommended. The Modernisation Committee refers to that report, so I hope that it will follow the recommendations of the Hansard Society report.
§ Mrs. Ann Taylor
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give the Government credit for the assurance that he has been given that the Northern Ireland police Bill will be introduced in the House.
§ Mr. Trimble
Indeed. The assurance was given after considerable representations were made by myself and my colleagues and after the Northern Ireland Office first informed us that it was its intention to proceed by Order in Council. I agree, that after representations were made, there was a concession. 1 do not know how many Orders in Council are proposed for this year, but there are five on the Order Paper and up to 10 might come through during the Session.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will also agree that if measures are to be introduced by means of primary legislation in the House rather than by Orders in Council, which is what he is requesting, there will be some delay. The right hon. Gentleman is saying, in part, that Bills must be discussed in a proper way. He will understand that slots must be found for many different pieces of proposed legislation. The right hon. Gentleman must take into account the fact that there will be delays.
§ Mr. Trimble
That argument is not worthy of any attention. I am dealing with a matter of principle that turns on the enactment of primary legislation, and there is a proper procedure. Whatever the difficulties, there is no excuse for substandard procedure.
In any event, there is no substance in the right hon. Lady's argument, even in its own terms, because the bulk of Northern Ireland legislation is parity legislation. Only a handful of Northern Ireland primary Acts are unique to Northern Ireland, and the police Bill is one of them. Given the significance of the Bill, we made considerable representations to the Government for it to be enacted. I appreciate, of course, that the Bill will proceed in the proper way.
Most Orders in Council are what we call parity legislation. In substance, they are the same as legislation that is enacted in the House and they could be included in that process. That would not cause any difficulty. 1092 A significant number of Bills that pass through the House deal with Great Britain and not only England and Wales. Scotland is also included. Given the different statute book in Scotland, there are schedules attached to many Bills that modify the proposed legislation for application in Scotland. There would be no difficulty in principle in applying that process to Northern Ireland legislation, although it would mean a different way of going about things.
There will be some difficulty in making the transition, but it can be made. That would not involve a significant addition to the time that is taken in this place producing legislation. It would not involve the time implications to which the Leader of the House referred.
I shall conclude—[[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am tempted not to conclude, but I shall.
I wish to refer to something that the Leader of the House said when in opposition. It is a comment that I take from the helpful research paper that has been prepared by the Library. The right hon. Lady was talking ofthe main project of re-engaging the gears of the political process in a fundamental way so that ordinary voters feel genuinely connected with the people who represent them.I put a gloss on that in terms of the need to feel connected with those in this place who enact legislation.
Society in Northern Ireland is disconnected from the political and legislative processes and from the way in which the House proceeds. My colleagues and I have made considerable efforts over the past decade and a half to try to ensure that society in Northern Ireland is connected, informed and plugged into proceedings in Westminster. That is why we attach so much importance to ensuring that there is a Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and a Northern Ireland Grand Committee. It is why we have also attached so much importance to arguing that proper legislation is enacted and that people in Northern Ireland have the same opportunity as those in the rest of the United Kingdom to express a view about proposed legislation.
§ Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
I am happy to follow some of the remarks of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), because he has raised important issues about Northern Ireland legislation being properly considered, scrutinised and consulted on during our deliberations. I am sure that the Select Committee on Modernisation will wish to take his comments on board.
There is a narrow window of opportunity at the beginning of an historic new Parliament when a third of the Members are fresh and new. It is important to grasp the opportunity that is before us. With such a large influx of new Members, we are not necessarily talking about changing old habits; we are thinking about how best to deliver the legislative process. I congratulate the Chair of the Modernisation Committee on taking the initiative, pushing ahead with it and ensuring that a report was produced in July, thereby ensuring that the debate is taking place today.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), who were not members of the Committee, but who, in my view, put their fingers on the nub of the report, which is that we shall make progress in a variety of ways if we recognise the need for legislation to be programmed.
1093 There must be a structure and a timetable, which could well involve rolling legislation over through more than one Session. As my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) said, we are elected for a Parliament, and a parliamentary term is five years. We should be able satisfactorily to span what any Government want to do in five years and ensure the best use of our time. The crux of the report is making the best use of our time in the Chamber and in Committee and as individual Members.
We should, of course, have pride in the past and in how Parliament has grown up. I still take visitors to the third step in Westminster Hall and point to the plaque which represents the place where Parliament took control over the monarchy. It is an important point and that represents the pride that we need to have, as well as pride in stimulating debate and winning debates by argument.
The best tradition of this place is when we win our arguments in debate because we have a good case. That being so, it is important properly to programme, by agreement through the usual channels, rather than to filibuster, to delay and to introduce guillotines, which means that we are cut short and parts of proposed legislation are not properly considered. That is the crux of the report.
There are three important reasons why we should see the report as one step on the way to moving our constitution forward. The first reason is that Parliament needs to come to terms with the micro chip, which is revolutionising our lives in many ways. It is not impossible to do that. I am pleased that the Committee has taken on board the need to move forward with voting arrangements. As I said in Committee, few of us gain access to our cash by taking a cheque book to a bank before 3.30 pm, signing our name and asking for £50. We all use our plastic cards, go to a slot in the wall and get the cash much more quickly. I accept the need for us to come together to vote, but it would be easier, speedier and more convenient if we used the microchip. That is a small step, but I am sure that it would lead to other ways of using our time better.
Secondly, we have a new gender balance in the House. That has not been mentioned yet this afternoon, but, to the public outside, it is one of the most striking results of 1 May. Wherever one goes, people say that Parliament must be very different now. I sometimes thinks that it would be nice if it were a little more different than it sometimes seems to be. We need to make even further progress with that gender balance and recognise that that will lead to a different, more consensual style of debate with more concentration on an issue.
I support a 10-minute limit on speeches, but I do not agree that that will kill interventions because injury time can be attached, as in football matches. However, debating behaviour has been influenced by the new make-up of the House, which I welcome. That is another reason why we need to take the modernisation process further.
Thirdly, the public expect a lot from this new Parliament and from us as Members of Parliament. Those who have been Members of Parliament for a while have been embarrassed by reports of the public's low—sometimes rock bottom—opinion of us and our work. That needs to change. We need the respect from the public that we believe Parliament should have. We will not have that respect unless we bring our parliamentary procedures and behaviour into the 21st century.
1094 In that regard, the most important issue is how to raise the status of all Committees—Standing Committees, Select Committees and scrutiny Committees. As many hon. Members have said, that is where the hard work is done and where many of the best debates take place. The answer is not to deal with everything on the Floor of House. The solution is within our grasp, and it is to raise the status of debates in Committees.
That may have an implication for the way in which the media views those Committees. Programmes such as "In Committee" will play their part in that. We may need more television cameras in all the Committee Rooms. If we are honest, it is what goes out on television and on the radio that people know about. I strongly support that. Many hon. Members have considered how to raise the status of scrutiny and I hope that the Committee will discuss that further.
The Modernisation Committee has been useful. We have had some interesting discussions. We cannot consider changing things without debate and that has sometimes led to philosophical discourse about what legislation is, what the House is for, what Government is, what the Opposition should be able to do to frustrate the Government, how minority parties should fit into a debating Chamber such as this, how the public should relate to the House and, finally but importantly, how Members of Parliament operate here while managing to keep for themselves a satisfactory existence, which is not always easy.
This is just the first of what I hope will be a useful series of reports from the Select Committee. I pay tribute to the President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), and the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) for treating the issue so seriously and with such urgency.
§ Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)
I am the 10th Member of the House to speak in the debate and the first of the new intake from 1 May, and it is from that one third of Members who are new to the House that much of the pressure for modernisation has come. However, it is encouraging to those new hon. Members on the Committee that hon. Members with much more experience than us share many of our concerns.
Earlier, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) criticised the choice of trustees for the parliamentary contributory pension fund. New Members were seriously under-represented on the Modernisation Committee, but those of us who were there hope that we punched our weight on behalf of other new colleagues; if we failed, I am sure that they will let us know.
New Members bring to the House a perception of what it looks like from the outside, because, until recently, we were on the outside. If something is not broken, there is no need to mend it. But the outside world has a clear perception that Parliament does have defects which need to be remedied.
The quality of the law making is criticised by professional bodies and the general public. There is example after example. It is not just partisan legislation that has gone wrong—the poll tax is an example of partisan discussion failing to deal adequately with 1095 technical defects—but legislation on which there has been consensus, of which the Child Support Act 1995 is an example. The quality of legislation is not determined by consensus or partisanship but by effectiveness. The Modernisation Committee was given figures showing the sheer number of Government amendments to their own legislation. When it comes to law making, there is a constant catching-up process.
The effectiveness of the monitoring of Departments and Ministers has also been criticised. That relates to the way in which Select Committees and the Chamber operate. The feeling that the accountability of Governments, Ministers and Departments, has declined in recent years was a driving force.
Before we consider too much the practical convenience of Members, we should remember that the House of Commons has a purpose, which is not necessarily the convenience of Members. I hope that those new Members on the Modernisation Committee were able to bring to it a sharper perception of what the outside world thinks as well as what hon. Members think.
That does not mean that the practical convenience of the House cannot be improved. I look forward to the discussions on the hours, the days and the calendar which lie ahead. I hope, too, that we can tackle some of the strange customs of the House which range from the trivial to the serious. One of my favourites is that when I tried to ask whether a Minister would or would not do something I was told that that parliamentary question was out of order because one cannot ask a Minister "whether", only "if'. Such trivial restrictions require some thought.
Much more serious than that are some of the issues mentioned by the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). It is inconceivable to outsiders that our national legislature does not have a seat for each Member of Parliament. Surely no other trade or profession fails to provide people with a seat in which to do the job.
§ Mr. Stunell
The hon. Gentleman makes a sound point. The hours, if not the rates of pay, are comparable.
The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has left the Chamber, but I wanted to deal with his practical point. To the best of my knowledge, he did not ask to be a member of the Modernisation Committee, and neither he nor any member of his party wrote or submitted briefings to it, so I was sorry to hear what he had to say about the level of representation that he had been able to secure.
The report is good as far as it goes. I welcome what it says about pre-legislative inquiries and draft Bills being put before Select Committees. The idea that Committees can participate in post-legislative monitoring to discover what has happened and to comment on it has not been mentioned much in the debate, but it will be important.
The timetabling provisions are sensible. No doubt some practical difficulties will have to be overcome, but they cannot be greater than the practical difficulties of spending several hours talking about clauses 1 and 2, and a few minutes on clauses 3 to 99.
1096 I support the points that have been made about Select Committees, but I want to use my time wisely, so I shall move on to talk about the reform of our voting procedure. It is clear that there is scope for better procedures to be used. Not even my best friends would regard me as a friend of the silicon chip, but the House ought to make certain changes.
The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) referred to the criticisms of the Chairmen's Panel. As he was unable to participate in some of the Committee's discussions, he may have missed some of the important points that have been made. Any speaking limit should allow for injury time to take account of interventions. We should not reduce the capacity of hon. Members to participate in a flowing debate.
The hon. Member for Stockton, North was critical of the proposal for a preliminary debate on whether a clause should stand part of a Bill followed by a discussion of the amendments. We dealt extensively with that matter in the Committee, but it is worth having a debate on a wider platform. If I were not keen to limit my remarks, I would expand on that, but perhaps the Committee could prepare a more structured and complete note for hon. Members, so that they are more fully aware of the arguments in support of that proposal.
I add my thanks to the Leader of the House for the way in which she has conducted the Committee. Today, she has skilfully worn two different hats: as Chairman of the Committee and as the person responding to the debate on behalf of the Government. I was particularly pleased that she mentioned two Bills that the Government intend will go through the draft Bill procedure.
Before the recess, I asked the Library to supply me with a list of previous recommendations and reports on reform and to identify those that have not been implemented. The Library said, "Are you sure that you know what you are asking for? How far back do you want to go"? I decided that I would go back 10 years. The reports that have not been implemented in the past 10 years make a substantial pile on my desk. I say to the Leader of the House, in her role as a representative of the Government, that sweet words in this debate and a couple of draft Bills are fine, but we need evidence of serious and sustained implementation by the Government of the proposals over which they have control.
That brings me to the future work of the Committee. I would be failing in my duty as a Liberal Democrat Member if I did not mention again the seating and shape of the Chamber, and the way in which it operates. Most people do not find the Houses of Parliament visitor friendly or family friendly; nor do they think that it delivers legislation efficiently, effectively and well. The work of the Modernisation Committee and of other Committees should be directed at correcting those perceptions and ensuring that the House has secure procedures that operate well, protect minority and opposition interests and deliver good government. If we put our minds to it, surely 659 of us could achieve that.
Combined action is required. No one has yet dared mention the other place, but we know that within the next five years fundamental reforms will take place at the other end of this building. That will perhaps give us an opportunity to consider how procedures in both Houses could interact more effectively in the future. If the Government are prepared to deal with fundamental 1097 reforms at the other end of the building, I hope that they will not shy away from discussion and implementation of fundamental reforms at this end.
Action is required from a large number of hon. Members who serve on Committees. That effort should be made not only by the 15 members of the Modernisation Committee, who I hope will produce more reports in the future; there should also be a strong commitment from hon. Members who are not on the Committee.
All these good intentions could merely be added to that pile on my desk. We could come back in 10 years' time little further forward. I hope that the Government and all hon. Members will work together to avoid that happening.
§ Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)
I can reassure the House that I shall make only a few general remarks as quickly as I can. They flow nicely from the remarks that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) has just made.
As a student too many years ago, I was made to read "The Reform of Parliament" by Bernard Crick, which was published in 1964. Those who do not have time to read the book should read the preface, which says:Parliamentary reform is one of those things, as Mark Twain remarked about the weather, which everybody talks about, but nobody does anything about. Seldom has there been so much public agreement that something should be done, but seldom so much private agreement that nothing is likely to be done.I am afraid that that is the truth of the matter, and it explains the pile on the hon. Gentleman's desk.
It so happens that Bernard Crick—who I am glad to say is now my friend—is now devising the new procedures for the Scottish Parliament. It will be an interesting, innovative and modern place. This House will look extremely old-fashioned when the Scottish Parliament is established. It will be a challenge to this House to put its own procedures in order.
This may be the moment when we stop talking about reform and start doing something about it. That may be the importance of this debate. The House is full of new Members and is far more representative than ever before. It looks different, feels different and has a radical energy about it. If this House cannot do this job, no House ever will. That is the nature of the moment and the opportunity that we are discussing—at a time when we have a radical general programme of political and constitutional reform of which these proposals are a part. We said that we would reform the British political system, and we are doing so. We said that the reform of the House of Commons was an essential part of that, and it is. These proposals sit not as a separate item, but as part of a general reform programme.
Perhaps most remarkable of all—it helps to explain why nothing much has happened on this front before, and it is, perhaps, the greatest tribute to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—is the fact that here are a Government who are helping along and engineering a series of measures that, if implemented, will make life more difficult for Ministers and for Governments. Here are a Government with the biggest majority in modern times, proposing a set of measures designed to make life—in some respects—more difficult for themselves. Why? I am afraid that the answer is that they believe in those measures. They believe that the time has come to 1098 modernise British political institutions, and to modernise this institution critically. They believe that the quality of legislation and the public interest demand that reform must be made. Surprising as it may seem that this is the moment, it turns out to be the moment when reforms seem finally and seriously to be happening.
We know about the problem. We know that the way in which the House considers legislation is a scandal and a disgrace. It is the bit of the system that we dare not expose to public view. It is a good job that people do not know in detail what happens. We tell stories among ourselves about the horrors of Standing Committees, but we are glad that that is not the general verdict that is delivered on our performance.
Example after example has been given. A definitive account of the poll tax has been written. The poll tax was the greatest policy disaster of modern times. It cost £1.5 billion: that is the cost of error, equivalent to about 2p on the standard rate of income tax. Hon. Members should read a book by David Butler and his colleagues called "Failure in British Government", which takes apart the way in which the House looked at—or did not look at—the poll tax. If there were more time, I would go into the details; I will give hon. Members the headlines.The Standing Committee was a futile marathon … the committee stage was mostly a matter of posturing … it was scrutiny by slogan and soundbite.
That can be replayed, Bill by Bill by Bill, Committee by Committee by Committee. That is why it is a scandal. That is why we are not discussing esoteric or internal issues. We are talking about the quality of legislation that affects the lives of all the people whom we represent. If we legislate badly, those people must live with the consequences—consequences that they will subsequently tell us about in our surgeries. That is why what we are talking about tonight matters; but it also forces us to ask why the change is not made. In essence, it is not made because of the way in which this place operates. Someone once described it as a permanent election campaign, and that is essentially what it is. There are good reasons why it should be that, but, if it is just that, it will not do what it has to do.
Yes, we all come here not because we carry wonderful individual virtues, but because we carry party labels; but, if we know only that, we shall never become Members of Parliament performing the functions that the textbooks say Members of Parliament should perform—functions that the House is supposed to perform. Enoch Powell once memorably said that there was no such thing as Parliament, only Government and Opposition. There is a terrible truth in that. What we have are Government and Opposition, locked into a permanent election campaign on the Floor of the House, in Committee and in every part of the system. The price that is paid for it just to be that is, I am afraid, the quality—or lack of quality—of the product that comes out.
We must reflect on the nature of the institution. We must ask why scrutiny is not rewarded—why there is no career structure in the House of Commons that rewards those who take scrutiny seriously; why the system is driven only by Whips and greasy poles; why there are not other avenues in which people of great talent and ability representing constituents can find a way of serving. I wish that the Modernisation Committee, to which I pay enormous tribute, had taken just a little time to say something rather more general about the importance of 1099 Parliament as Parliament, and what its central functions were. It could then have gone on to say things about legislative reform.
We know what the reform agenda is; we have always known. For me, the most telling sentence in the report is this, in paragraph 15:With one or two notable exceptions, such as the creation of "First Reading" Committees, the House could, if it so wished, do a great deal without a single amendment to Standing Orders.The House has, over the years, invented ways of improving the process, but it has done nothing about them. The Special Standing Committee procedure is the best example of that.
We heard from the Opposition that they were against incorporating the European convention on human rights in our law. There was nothing to stop the House, over the years, from setting up a human rights committee. It could have scrutinised every piece of legislation to ensure that it was consistent with the convention, and with all our other human rights obligations. If it had done that, it would have more credibility in saying that we did not need to incorporate the convention because we had our own methods. But it did nothing of the kind: it showed no interest in such matters. That could have been done, but it was not done.
I have just two more things to say. First, I must express disappointment. I think that, on the question of constitutional Bills, the Committee sold the pass. I understand why: its members clearly could not agree. Those outside who have considered the matter seriously understand the need to ensure that constitutional Bills are not all caught by a doctrine casually invented in 1945—the doctrine involving Bills of first-class constitutional importance. No one can define them—no one knows what is a first-class, a second-class or a third-class Bill—but, simply for political reasons, it has been asserted that all such Bills must be taken on the Floor of the House.
I do not think that at all sensible. We have made great progress on the Finance Bill by taking some of its clauses in Standing Committee and some on the Floor of the House. Doing that improves the quality of scrutiny. Was not the Local Government Act 1985, which abolished the Greater London council and swept away metropolitan counties, a Bill of first-class constitutional importance? But it was not taken on the Floor of the House.
When I first came to the House, 1 sat on the Committee considering the Right to Know Bill of 1993, a private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). It was an excellent Committee stage, in which hon. Members on both sides participated fully. We knew that the Government would kill the Bill at the end of the day, but, my goodness, it was a good Committee. No one could pretend that the process would have been improved if the Bill had been taken on the Floor of the House, but I suspect that we shall be told that such Bills are of first-class constitutional importance, and therefore cannot be treated in that way. We should look at the end that we want, which is improved scrutiny, and not play political games with the process.
Let me now come to the heart of what I wanted to say. The Committee has come up with a menu. It has said that there are a variety of devices whereby the legislative 1100 process could be improved: ad hoc Select Committees, Special Standing Committees, Second Reading Committees and First Reading Committees. That is the menu from which we can choose. The question is: will it happen?
Three things are required for it to happen: first, a Leader of the House who is radical, energetic, innovative and wants to lead, and I think that we have that; secondly—this is the crucial point—Ministers and civil servants with Ministers who are prepared to expose their Bills to the menu of scrutiny that the Committee is proposing. That is the most challenging point of all. Thirdly, the Opposition need to understand that scrutiny can be constructive and not merely oppositional. We shall find out soon whether those all conditions are in place. The public interest requires that they are.
In every other area of life, we search for common ground. We seek to arrive at decisions by going from positions of difference to a position of common ground. This institution is different because, laser-like, it searches for disagreement. That is what makes this place distinctive. That is why people have lost confidence in it and rumbled it. That is why we say that any talk of a new politics means doing politics differently in this place too.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
During this interesting debate, several references have been made to the record number of new Members in this Parliament. I compliment many of them on having the fortitude to sit through this debate and I am sure that the House looks forward to hearing their comments on these important issues.
I am reminded of my feelings on being elected to the House 10 years ago. I felt that the whole procedure was archaic and that working methods, the conditions that we endured and the hours were unacceptable. Many a time, I would remonstrate with the then Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor). I now realise, however, that I was somewhat impetuous. As time progressed, I realised that evolution, rather than revolution, was important in the House of Commons and that we should, as far as possible, try to make existing systems work better.
In reaching an understanding of what we are about, it is important that we should remind ourselves of the exact role of the Back Bencher. It is not necessarily to support the Executive; indeed, it is the opposite. Our role is to control the Executive—to hold it to account. There is a distinction between the role of the Government in getting their business through and the role of Back Benchers in ensuring that the Government do not run roughshod over the rights of Back Benchers and of the people whom they represent.
Hon. Members are a vital component of our democracy. We are the people who are charged with the responsibility of balancing the aspirations of people whom we represent and the ambitions of the Executive, who may, from time to time, have an entirely different agenda.
We would all be wise to note the words of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who drew attention to the fact that the power of the Opposition was the time that they have historically enjoyed in the House. He said that that time had been severely curtailed 1101 and made the valid point that we all had a right to put our view and to be heard. It is a long-standing feature of our parliamentary democracy that opposition should be heard.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) rightly chided the Government for having ridden somewhat roughshod over Parliament in introducing various measures. The Labour party must realise, as any democrat would, that all hon. Members are elected and deserve to, and must, be heard. It would perhaps not be amiss for the new Government to realise that fewer people voted for them than for all the other parties represented in the House, so a majority of the electorate did not vote for the Government.
Indeed, it is unusual for a Government to command more than 50 per cent. of the votes cast at a general election, but that is not my point. Notwithstanding the fact that they have a huge majority, they have to allow time for hon. Members who represent the millions of people who voted differently to put their case, to argue with the Government in debate and to challenge features of their policies that we feel should be challenged.
§ Mr. Salter
I always find it bewildering when Conservative Members talk about the proportion of votes. Do I take it that the hon. Gentleman supports electoral reform and will back proportional representation?
§ Mr. Gill
The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the point that I am trying to make, which is simple. The fact that the Labour Government have a majority of 179 in this Parliament does not mean that they can push through their legislation without regard to the legitimate views of other Members, who have been elected by a substantial number of votes. On 1 May, more people in the UK voted for parties other than the Labour party. The point at issue is that, if our system is to be in any way democratic, the representatives of the people have to have an opportunity to put their view and to be heard. The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne was right.
I welcome the report's conclusions in paragraph 91, although I note the comments by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) on the experiences in Northern Ireland. I have been a long-term advocate of channelling legislation through Select Committees, because they could enormously improve legislation. I remind the House that the departmental Select Committees are relatively new. They were instituted in 1979, when the Conservative party had just formed a new Government, in much the same way as the Labour party has just taken the reins of office.
The advantage in referring draft legislation to Select Committees is that the legislation would be considered at an early stage by a group of people who would have built up expertise in the appropriate sector. More to the point—this may apply more to Labour than to Opposition Back Benchers—if draft legislation were channelled through departmental Select Committees, Committee members would have greater job satisfaction. They would feel that they were doing something worth while and contributing to something that had a future—legislation that would progress through the House and eventually be enacted. The benefits would be not just to Members of Parliament, but to the general public and the people whom we represent. I believe that that process would mean that we had a more transparent system of consultation.
1102 Government Departments currently assure us that consultation is carried out with appropriate bodies before legislation is brought to the House. However, we have no way of knowing how thorough that consultation has been and, without many searching questions, we cannot find out who has been consulted. One is wary of the fact that Departments and Ministers are busy and that consultation may not have taken place with all those who might wish to have some input into the legislation. Through the Select Committee procedure there is scope for following up any matters arising from the evidence taken. All that would give rise to better legislation and, more to the point, would save time, not just on the Floor of the House but in Standing Committees.
There has already been reference to the number of amendments being presented to much of the legislation that has come before the House. Sometimes, the number has been unacceptably high. That is a great indictment of the way in which the legislation reached that stage.
I am tempted to say that we have too much legislation. When it comes to ordering the business of the House, the Executive might consider bringing less legislation before us so that the legislation that they do present can be given more time and be considered in more detail. In that way, the legislation reaching the statute book would be better.
In advocating the role of departmental Select Committees in considering draft legislation, I do not want to detract in any way from their important work of scrutinising Government Departments. I commend the suggestion in the report that they should have a role in monitoring recent legislation; in other words, that there should be a follow-up procedure for legislation once it has been enacted. Nor do we want to lose sight of the vital role of Select Committees in investigating matters of public interest on an ad hoc basis.
The important matter of debating Select Committee reports on the Floor of the House has been mentioned. Too few of their reports come to the House and hon. Members, certainly those who serve on those Committees, would like to think that there will be a greater opportunity for the result of their labours to be discussed on the Floor of the House at some stage.
Different views have been expressed about the paragraph in the report which refers to carrying over legislation from one Session to the next. A former Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, said that he thought that that was a good thing, but my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) disagreed with him. I find myself in agreement with my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon. If Governments have the scope to roll over legislation into the next Session, it would cut across the points made so ably by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne. Time is of the essence for the Opposition and we would be forfeiting one of the essential rights of the Opposition if we allowed the Government to roll over legislation.
§ 8.3 pm
§ Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)
As another newly elected Member who was a member of the Select Committee, I must say that that membership has been a fascinating experience and has given me a crash course at least in the theory of current parliamentary procedures. I am grateful to the more experienced members of the Committee who have been forbearing in 1103 explaining the complexity of the procedures to me. I hope that all my fellow new Members have read the report and that they keep by them the handy chart in the report, which is the clearest exposition of all the different options available to us to exploit the procedures of the House to try to make it more effective.
Members of the public watching Parliament on television must be forgiven for thinking that the most important parts of the work of the House of Commons are questions to the Prime Minister and other Ministers. Holding Ministers to account is crucial, but the major output of Parliament is legislation. If that legislation is faulty, it can have a highly significant effect on people's lives, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright).
I am not against referring to hon. Members by their constituency, but I would find it easier if the annunciator gave our constituency in brackets under our name. That would allow us to listen to the debate instead of having to scrabble around in text books trying to find out the constituencies of various hon. Members. That is an example of the way in which the traditions of the House interfere with debate rather than facilitate it.
I believe that the key aims of the recommendations made in the report are to improve the effectiveness of Parliament and Members of Parliament and to improve the quality of legislation. Those two things are interlinked. The shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), talked about the red heat of political debate and about this being a continuous election campaign. We have all been elected as party political people and we all have deeply held and passionate party political views. It would be naive to try to deny that.
We should accept that two different things take place within the legislative process. The first is the argument in principle about the aims of a Bill. That will always be party political and will sometimes involve debates between factions within individual parties. The second part of the legislative process is discussion of the detail of the legislation—the detail which is vital to make it work. The recognition of that split is crucial.
It is not helpful if any alteration to a Bill, however minor, is seen as a defeat for the Government. A defeat on the principle of a Bill would be a defeat for the Government, but improvements to the detail can be made by Opposition Members and by Government Back Benchers and following suggestions from outside organisations. We should not engender an atmosphere in which the Government try to defend everything. I believe that acceptance of constructive amendments is a sign of strength in a Government, not a sign of weakness.
The Opposition should be able to oppose a Bill in principle and then, having lost the vote on that—that will inevitably happen in this Parliament—they should make constructive suggestions about how to make the Bill work, even if they do not agree with it in the first place. That is why I believe that in Committee it should be possible first to take a vote on the principle of a clause, allowing the Opposition to make their point, and then to go on to discuss the detailed implementation of the Bill. The Opposition could then make positive and constructive comments without that being taken as support for the 1104 principle of the Bill. Those somewhat detailed proposals are incredibly important if we are to make this place work more effectively.
Another important aspect of making this place work more effectively is to ensure that we fully use the wide range of expertise of Members of Parliament and the external organisations that try to give advice to the House. That would all help to achieve better quality legislation. That is why I support the proposals on draft legislation and for a much more imaginative use of Committees, including pre-legislative Committees, and for a more deliberative and less confrontational style of debate in those Committees.
As I have said, Parliament now has a large number of Members with a huge range of expertise, and we must use that effectively. Like the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), my personal preference is for having ad hoc pre-legislative and Special Standing Committees rather than departmental Select Committees for pre-legislative work. That would diffuse work among Members, rather than concentrating it. Members with specialist knowledge, such as on pensions, sometimes do not serve on the relevant Select Committee.
My second point—it is very late and I have not eaten for hours, so perhaps I have lost track and it is my third point—is about programming. Programming of legislation is extremely important. It is important that it is tailored to each Bill. Some Bills do not require much detailed discussion and should be whipped through Committee. Others may need a lot of detailed discussion and should have many Committee sittings. Programming will allow time for the parts of each Bill that need full discussion to be fully discussed. It will stop the time wasting on relatively uncontentious parts of a Bill, which I am led to believe occurs under the present procedure.
Programming is also important because it helps individual Members to use their time most effectively. It brings a certain predictability to the legislative process, which not only is advantageous to individual Members but helps to achieve effective scrutiny. If Members can plan their time more effectively, they are likely to be better prepared when issues that they believe are important are debated and when they take part in such debates.
I refute the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), who seemed to think that programming was all about accelerating the progress of Bills. That is not necessarily so. Programming is about accelerating through parts that do not need much discussion and giving time to parts that do need it.
I accept that, to begin with, discussions on programming will have to take place through the usual channels, but I hope that, in future, that process becomes less opaque. I do not think that the usual channels are entirely consistent with the transparency that most of us espouse.
The Modernisation Committee will discuss the conduct of debate. I want to make two points. First, hon. Members with some experience tend to wax lyrical about the virtue of debate in the House and the importance of its cut and thrust. It really does not encourage Members from the 1997 intake to take part in debates when the custom of the House is to keep such Members waiting until everybody else has spoken—unless one is lucky enough to be a member of a party that has very few representatives, in which case one is advanced up the order. The House needs to take note of that. It is also a fact that most of my hon. Friends and I have been 1105 listening with patience to our more senior colleagues, yet few of them have had the courtesy to wait and listen to what we wish to say.
My second point arises from my experience in the Chamber yesterday during Prime Minister's Question Time. I really wondered whether any Opposition Members—none of those whom I particularly noticed and about whom I am about to complain is present—had any understanding of the way in which our behaviour is perceived by the public. Of course I understand that it is the role of Opposition Members—they are absolutely justified in that role—robustly to question Ministers and try to demonstrate what they perceive are Government errors, but the yelling, the gesturing and the frankly boorish behaviour which seems to have become traditional simply give the impression of a barrack room rather than a serious attempt to hold the Government to account. It brings the House into disrepute—and that is played back every weekend when I speak to people in my constituency.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
Does the hon. Lady accept that such behaviour did not begin on 1 May?
§ Dr. Starkey
I accept that absolutely. Obviously, I was not in the House before 1 May. The fact that such behaviour may have gone on before is absolutely no excuse for it continuing. This is a new Parliament. The public have a new attitude to politicians; it is not one of much respect. All of us—both new and old Members—must live up to our responsibility to try to rehabilitate Parliament in the eyes of the public. I do not absolve some of my hon. Friends from some of the boorish behaviour.
I very much hope that the report's recommendations on the legislative process are accepted and rapidly put into effect. I very much hope that this is just the start of a modernisation of Parliament that will renew the public's interest and confidence in what we all do as Members of Parliament.
§ Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North)
I am pleased to be able to participate in this debate. I say to the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) that it has not taken fortitude for me to remain in the Chamber throughout the debate. As a new Member of Parliament, I have found it interesting and informative. This debate has given me the opportunity to make my maiden speech.
I was proud and privileged to be elected to the House on 1 May for a number of reasons—one being that I hail from the city of Derby. I was born there and have lived and worked there all my life. Prior to being elected, I served for about 18 years—at times it seemed longer—as an elected member of Derby city council. I therefore believe that I bring to the House a great knowledge and considerable experience of the concerns, worries and aspirations of the electors of the city of Derby.
I also know some of the reasons why newcomers to the city of Derby grow to love the place. Derby has been described over the years as the biggest village in England. It has a population of about 250,000. On occasions, however, it takes me a couple of hours to travel a few hundred yards through the city centre. The people are very friendly, want to exchange views with me, seek my opinions and of course, on many occasions, bend my ear.
1106 The political history of Derby is quite interesting. The seat of Derby, North came into existence only in 1950. Prior to that, since—I am advised–1299, Derby sent two Members of Parliament from one constituency, the longest serving Member of Parliament being the late Lord Noel Baker, who had a most distinguished parliamentary and international career.
On a statistical note, over the past century Derby has returned 16 men to Westminster, which is perhaps a somewhat dubious tradition for me to continue. It is dubious because I am pleased to say that, as a result of the election, we have so many women in this Parliament.
One reassuring statistic, which enlivens me fairly considerably, is that the average age of the previous 16 Members of Parliament at their death was 80.5 years and five of them were nonagenarians. Representing Derby, North obviously prolongs life. Subject to the vagaries of the election process, I might be around for a while.
The election on 1 May was my second attempt to win the constituency of Derby, North for the Labour party. I also contested it in 1992. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Greg Knight, whom I always found a most friendly and approachable parliamentarian. He rose to a position of some influence in the Conservative Government, perhaps as a result of his almost total loyalty to the their policies. However, if he had been given the opportunity on 28 November to vote on the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), I feel sure that he would have supported it, because he felt especially strongly about that issue and had voted accordingly on previous occasions.
One of the difficulties Greg experienced as the Deputy Chief Whip of the Conservative was being termed, affectionately, "silent Knight", because he could not contribute to debates. It was only during the later stages of his parliamentary career, from late 1996 onwards, when he became a Minister and started to spread his wings a little, that he became more well known in the city that he had ably served for the previous 14 years.
Greg took the seat 14 years ago from my friend and colleague Phillip Whitehead, who will be remembered by many hon. Members with affection. I am pleased to say that he continues to represent the interests of Derby's citizens in the new, redefined European constituency. He continues to do an excellent job on behalf of his constituents.
Derby has been supported by two industrial pillars—the aerospace and rail industries. Rolls-Royce Aerospace is enjoying a resurgence, and only today the Government announced that its bid for funds to develop its large engine range has been agreed. The total sum will amount to up to £200 million and I am delighted to have had the opportunity, since May, to play some small part in ensuring that that money has been made available. It will give Rolls-Royce the opportunity to develop large engines for the new range of larger jets produced by Boeing and British Aerospace. Rolls-Royce is at the leading edge of technology and the money will enable the company to seize a greater share of the world market with its Trent engine.
The rail industry, however, has a somewhat sadder history. Many of us were greatly concerned by the previous Government's rail privatisation proposals, 1107 mainly because while the legislation was being completed, the rail manufacturing industry suffered a complete vacuum of orders. As a result, the United Kingdom rail industry started to collapse and in York, for example, all rail manufacturing activity ceased. I pay tribute to the Swedish—not English—senior management of Asea Brown Boveri, now Adtranz, who stuck with Derby through a lean period when no orders came in for three years. The company has managed to stay in Derby and kept the core work force and design team together. Only a few days ago, I visited Wembley at the company's invitation to look at the new train it has designed and built for Chiltern Railways. Adtranz is on the way back, and not before time.
Derby, North is the commuter area of the city and, because of the two main pillars of aerospace and rail manufacturing, most people who live there have worked, work or will work—again, in some cases—for those industries. The city is doing reasonably well and has attracted many small and medium enterprises that are doing especially well. I have to say—and not only as a previous leader of Derby city council—that that success is due in no small measure to the combined efforts of the city council, Derbyshire county council, the private sector, Derby university, and many other agencies. All those bodies have worked together in close partnership to ensure that we sell Derby as a city of the future, through the Derby city partnership, which has proved to be a great success.
It would be remiss of me, and I would probably face justified criticism, not to refer to the role that Derby's sporting activities are now playing on the national and international stage. Some people would say that Derby County football club—the Rams—has perhaps the most international team in the land, and it is doing well in the premier league. I played some part in the club's move from the old Baseball ground to a new, state-of-the-art, 30,000-seat stadium at Pride park. I am delighted that the club is getting capacity audiences there. I also pay tribute to the foresight of the club's directors, who went out on a financial limb to fund the project, and I wish the club well in the future.
I shall now turn to the modernisation process that we are debating. After 18 years in local government, one learns to study legislation—and its legal interpretations—closely and I have always said that the devil is in the detail. For example, paragraph 4(iii)(a) of the Afghan light railway act 1726 will be the bit that causes endless confusion. It is the detail that stops people doing what they want to do. On my arrival in the House, I found it interesting to examine the Order Paper in some detail. Despite my extensive experience in interpreting legislation, again as a result of my time in local government, the Order Paper defeated me very early. Of course, a number of colleagues assured me that they understood it perfectly, but it took only a few nanoseconds of questions before they decided to terminate our conversation. I quickly concluded that they understood it little better than I did, although some of them had been Members of Parliament for many years. I am delighted that we have already ensured that the Order Paper is more readily understandable, because that is immense progress.
1108 The programming of legislation is also important. Even from my limited experience in the House, I have concluded that we need to try to ensure some certainty in the legislative process and its timing. I note from the report that the Modernisation Committee intends to consider the balance between the times when the House sits and the recesses, although it has not discussed that issue yet. That is long overdue. Many of us found it strange to work here for three months and then to leave for three months. When we came back, the learning process had to start again. Establishing a better balance between the periods when the House is in recess and when it is sitting would be to the advantage of us all.
I welcome the Modernisation Committee's report. From my limited experience, I have seen that we must be forward-looking and move from the 17th or 18th century at least some way towards the 21st. Many colleagues have made excellent points about the way in which we are perceived by the public, who find some of our customs archaic. I have no great difficulty with some of the customs and practices of the House—I am not someone who wants to come in and turn the applecart upside down. Some of our customs are amusing, some are interesting and some are a little quirky, but they do not get in the way of the legislative process. I am pleased that the Committee is looking at that process. We need to home in on that, and not the customs and practices, which are part of the tradition of the House and should be retained. We must home in on the legislative process and bring it up to a modern standard that befits the 21st century.
§ Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) on his maiden speech and commend him for his patience not only tonight, but for waiting for what must be a proud moment. I commend him also for his commitment to Derby, its people and its football club. I have spent many a sad hour at Reading football club watching Derby hammer my poor chaps into the ground. I hope for my hon. Friend's sake that Derby does not have to face Reading again and that Derby has a more succesful period in the premiership than Reading would have done had it beaten my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House's side, Bolton Wanderers—a fact of which she cruelly reminded me when she responded to my maiden speech.
It is good to see representatives from local government here in the House. One of the great features of the massive intake of new Labour Members—I am looking at my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey)—is that it is good to see hon. Members who have had experience of running and delivering services. The confidence that my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North showed in delivering his maiden speech shows that he is not intimidated by this large council chamber. I wish him well for the future.
It is important that new Members contribute to this important debate on the modernisation of the House of Commons and of our democracy in general. We may not bring new ideas, but we do bring a fresh approach. A Government Whip said to me not long ago that the problem with this place is that once people get into a position where they are able to change things, they do not want to because they have become accustomed to the 1109 place and its quirks, traditions and crazy hours of working. Perhaps in five years' time I might not say what I wish to say now—which is why I want to say it now.
I am conscious that the Government Whips are anxious that we should not speak for too long as they want to go home. I have already made some points in my maiden speech. I commend the work of the Modernisation Committee, particularly on the revised Order Paper. It is wonderful to have an Order Paper that is written in English and can be understood by members of the press and the public. I am pleased that we are looking at the legislative process and I commend in particular page vi of the report, where the nine essential requirements of a reformed system are listed.
Members of the parliamentary Labour party need no reminder that, as far back as 1994, we formulated radical and definitive policies for reform of the House of Commons. It would be nice to see many of these reforms in place before the end of the Parliament. To build on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North, as we approach the new millennium, it would be nice to think that we could drag ourselves kicking and screaming into the 20th century—that way we will be only 100 years behind the times, rather than 300.
Before senior Members misinterpret my comments, I must say that I believe that it is a tremendous privilege to serve as a Member of Parliament. We have much in our traditions of which we can be proud, but much of our procedure is ridiculous, arcane, irrelevant and disconnects us from the real world. I shall give some examples, although I do not wish to touch on points mentioned by other hon. Members. At present, large areas of the House of Commons are no-go areas for the elderly and the disabled. The current ridiculous rules prevent our having something simple like a cup of tea with constituents who come here unless we take them out on to the Terrace, where it is freezing in winter.
I welcome the fact that the Committee will look at the timetabling of business so that Members can plan their diaries more effectively. I welcome the fact that we now receive the provisional timetable for two weeks ahead, but I urge the Committee to look at planning legislation and the business of the House for three weeks ahead so we can plan constituency engagements and our time better.
I strongly support the case for a change in our working hours. I would, wouldn't I, because I am a Member from the home counties. I recognise that Members from the north, or those with business interests, may like the current system, but is it not possible for the core hours of the House of Commons to be from 11 am to 7 pm? Is it not possible for Select Committees to sit in the evening, making it easier for the public to attend and for us to plan a more sensible working day? Such an arrangement would make it possible for Members to have some element of family life, which seems taboo in this place—certainly to judge from the number of divorces.
I am at a loss to understand the value of the pairing system. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy), a Government Whip, nodding; perhaps he is too. I fail to see how we can pair with an Opposition party whose numbers do not equal our majority. Perhaps the pairing system has had its day and we can look at a more radical system, such as proxy voting. If it is okay for my grandmother to have a proxy 1110 vote if she is unwell, I should have thought that it must be okay for Members of Parliament. I hope such suggestions are not heresy.
§ Mr. Salter
I am sure that they are to the hon. Gentleman.
In the context of a Government with a massive majority—the largest since 1832—there is a need to re-examine the role of Back Benchers. One thing I learned from my time in local government is that it is important for Administrations with large majorities to give the troops something to do. Would it be so harmful—would it threaten the Executive—if Back Benchers were allowed to gain time on the Floor of the House if, for example, they gained the support of 30 or 40 per cent. of Members of all parties for an early-day motion? I understand that that was a convention some years ago.
There should be a time limit on speeches. I am not sure that the delaying tactic used by the Opposition is particularly effective, and I am not sure what is achieved by a filibuster. I am not sure what we have to lose by time-limiting speeches and letting more Members get in. I certainly believe that Select Committees should be allowed to have at least one report of their choice debated on the Floor of the House in any 12-month period. My limited, recent experience has shown me that time should be available for private Members' legislation. Perhaps if that were the case, we would not have a problem with the forthcoming private Member's Bill to end the barbaric sport of hunting with hounds.
Since I was privileged to be elected a Member of Parliament, my opinion that the job of representing 70,000 people is a full-time job and that there is no excuse for Members to have paid employment outside has been confirmed. We are adequately paid.
I took the liberty of having a trawl through the Register of Members' Interests. The first Hamilton that I looked up is no longer a Member of Parliament, so I can mention him by name. His entry was not especially informative, but perhaps that is why he is no longer with us. The right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) lists seven remunerated directorships, has five remunerated employment opportunities and, like all of us, represents between 60,000 and 70,000 people. We do our constituents no service by being in thrall to two masters.
Various publications have been cited, as much that what we talk about is not new. I commend to the House a small pamphlet, "Reinventing Democracy", written about three years ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). It is short and precise and encapsulates much of what we have said tonight and much of what the Select Committee already has in its work programme.
I believe that the Select Committee has made a tremendous start, but there is a long, long way to go before we make the changes necessary to re-establish the credibility of this mother of Parliaments in the eyes of the nation.
§ Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) on his maiden speech, which was excellent, and I am glad that 1111 Derby County is doing so well in the league. I have supported Leeds all my life, so my life has been an echoing void in many ways.
The Select Committee's first report has dealt largely with the programming of legislation. In the Tea Room and the Lobbies I have heard the argument that the timetabling of legislation represents an attack on the rights and powers of Back Benchers. I have my doubts. Timetabling exists anyway: if memory serves, we have had two or three guillotines in this Parliament, and we had 50 or 60 in the previous Parliament. That is timetabling in a fairly haphazard way and the recommendations merely take it a few stages further.
I have grave doubts about timetabling on the Floor of the House, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) said, timetabling in Committee hands more power to Back Benchers, because there is more incentive for them to speak and the Government do not put pressure on them there not to speak or to keep their comments brief, which happens in the Chamber under Governments of whatever political complexion.
The real attacks on Back Benchers' power took place in the 12 or 14 years before 1 May 1997. That is when hours were cut and the ability of Opposition Back Benchers to keep the Government up all night was curtailed. I can think of one or two former and current Labour Back Benchers who were very good at that. People no longer speak on money resolutions, for example.
I suspect that the Conservatives, under whose aegis those powers were taken away, now regret it. Perhaps they thought that they would never be in opposition again. They certainly do not have the powers that we enjoyed for many years on the Opposition Back Benches.
The shadow Leader of the House mentioned policy pronouncements through press releases and newspaper columns. That is nothing new; policy pronouncements should be made on the Floor of the House, but there has been a slide in the other direction for the past 20 years, as I believe Madam Speaker pointed out on another occasion.
There was a great deal of talk in the previous Parliament—it has been coming back over the past few weeks—about cutting hours and making them more relevant. I do not see how we could do that, as hours have already been cut drastically. Twenty years ago, the House used to sit until 2 am or 3 am a couple of times a week. We may be glad that that does not happen any more, but it is hard to see how we could cut hours even more. How can we get 17 Bills through this Session if we cut hours? That will not work.
We must remember that in the real world people face longer hours, less pay, shorter holidays and less sick pay, yet Members of Parliament talk about working fewer hours, and last year they voted themselves a 30 per cent. pay increase. That does not go down brilliantly with people who face increasing difficulties at work.
I find it incredible that we cannot get the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill through, yet we have just been away for three months. There is a slight contradiction there. We should bear it in mind that at the 1112 most recent general election, 12 million people failed to vote, compared with 9 million at the previous one. There is increasing alienation from the democratic political process.
More and more people feel deeply cynical about what goes on here. Talk about cutting hours, lengthening holidays and raising pay will only make people feel even more that the House is irrelevant. People outside face problems that Members of Parliament, on £43,000 a year minimum, will never face, unless they are defeated, as quite a few were recently.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House mentioned alternative voting methods. I am glad to hear that there is unanimity on the Select Committee that voting will still take place here. The method of voting as it stands is pretty effective. As a new Member, I have found that it is possible to buttonhole Ministers in the Lobby, but nowhere else. Any encouragement to stay away, especially for Ministers, would be a bad thing.
Right now, the Chamber is almost empty; there is no danger of anyone getting killed in the crush to get in. When I had an Adjournment debate, the Conservative Benches were completely empty. Perhaps no Conservative Members were interested in what I had to say, although I thought that the subject, the funding and administration crisis in further education, was important. There were not many people on the Government Benches, either.
I remind hon. Members of one Colonel Sir Walter de Frece, a Conservative Member of Parliament in the 1920s and 1930s, who lived in some luxury in a palace in Monte Carlo and came to the House only twice a year, on Budget day and when Ascot was on. He had the reputation of being quite a good constituency Member, because he signed blank sheets of House of Commons notepaper and his secretary filled in the rest. Push-button voting would lead to such people raising their heads again.
I welcome some changes made since 1 May. For instance, the new Order Paper has made a great difference. It is now written in English, which is helpful. I also welcome the change in Prime Minister's Question Time. No Labour Member would accuse me of being a careerist, but I think that that has been a very beneficial change.
If the Prime Minister is under the spotlight for only a quarter of an hour, he can virtually bluff it, get out in a trice and think, "Thank Christ for that, I've got away with it." Of course, our Prime Minister never thinks that. Being under the spotlight for half an hour exposes him to far greater Opposition scrutiny, if the Opposition are up to providing it.
A radical innovation that would greatly help new Members would be the end of the Privy Council. I see no reason for prolonging its rights. Membership gives rights to some senior Back Benchers who were Ministers but not to others. New Members have to wait for hours to speak. The longest that I have waited to take part in a debate was seven hours, and I did not get called at the end of it.
I accept that there must be some process of seniority, but the Privy Council means that some senior Back Benchers who are Privy Counsellors can come in, make a quick speech and leave the Chamber, while other senior Back Benchers have to sit around with the rest of us for four, five or six hours before speaking. There is a certain inequality in that.
1113 Two previous speakers said that there should be more co-operation in the Chamber, that we should all cuddle up together. I am dubious about that. If I had sat on the Standing Committee that considered the poll tax legislation, which was mentioned earlier, I would have said that the tax was an evil attack on the poorest and most vulnerable in society and that we should sling it out. That was what the people did out there. It was not done in here, but it was done out in the country. They slung it out. I am not going to smile on cuddling up to Conservative Members whom I have spent my life trying to get out.
My final point concerns outside interests. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) said, outside interests go down badly with people outside, who often face lower wages and longer hours. When the public see hon. Members with eight, nine or 10 directorships earning a fortune—the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), if memory serves, picked up a job on £100,000 with Barclays de Zoete Wedd—they find it obscene. It must end. Fortunately, the result on 1 May has by itself made a difference to political culture. Labour Members want to be here because they believe in public service and in restoring honour and respect to the post of Member of Parliament. Too many Conservative Members came here to line their pockets with directorships, adviserships and consultancies.
§ Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) on his maiden speech.
Like other new Members, I hope that my remarks will not be considered presumptuous. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and her Committee on their work so far and on producing the report, which I have read. I found the chart at the back helpful. I also find the new Order Paper helpful, as do other hon. Members.
The Leader of the House said that she was inviting us to state our priorities. I am going to take up her invitation, although I suspect that I shall add to the long list of demands and requests for the Committee to work its way through. I gather that the Committee will in the next few weeks consider the conduct of debates. Timed speeches have been mentioned several times. I wish to refer especially to timed speeches on the Floor.
I am at pains to emphasise that I am not asking the Committee to consider timed speeches in the interest of speed. I agree with other hon. Members that speeding up legislation can be bad. Scrutiny is important. There have been examples of bad legislation that was speeded through the House with disastrous effects. As has been said, it is our electorate who must live with bad legislation. I raise timed speeches in the interest of the quality of debate.
Like other hon. Members, I come from a local authority background. As in most council chambers, we had timed speeches. Timing can vary and be quite flexible. I am not arguing for five or 10-minute speeches but for a mechanism that encourages hon. Members to be succinct and concise. The most valuable thing about timed speeches is that they enable as many people as possible to get into the debate. The way things stand, hon. Members are called by order of seniority, which we all understand, and in the interest of getting the right cross-party political mix.
1114 I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and Madam Speaker work hard to try to fit us all in. I by no means I decry that, but in debates when many hon. Members want to speak, some cannot get in. By the nature of things, that tends to affect Back Benchers, especially newer Members. Apart from the frustration of hon. Members who have researched and prepared speeches that they cannot deliver, the House is the poorer for that, because it loses the practical knowledge and fresh approach that new Members in particular can bring to debates.
I had been in the House a week when a Conservative Member described me and other new Labour Members as Lobby fodder. New Members do not regard themselves as Lobby fodder. We are here to do a job of work. We are privileged to represent our constituencies. I am particularly privileged as the first Labour Member to represent my constituency. We come from a variety of backgrounds and have a lot to contribute to debates. We want to be active on the Floor as well as in Committee and in our constituencies.
The other reason why I should like the Committee to consider timed speeches is that several hon. Members have mentioned the public perception of the House and the way in which we debate. We must be sensitive to the fact that the public have a different perception of our conduct in the House and of our speeches. My constituents have told me that they perceive—I am being diplomatic—longer speeches of a meandering nature as reinforcing the unfortunate perception that Members of Parliament are merely in love with the sound of their own voices and opinions.
I said that I would be succinct and brief because I wished to raise only one point. I shall therefore end by saying that I do not decry my hon. Friends' ability to make long speeches and to stick to the point, but they must also be concise and succinct. The greatest contribution that can be made through timed speeches is to enable as many hon. Members as possible to participate in debates.
§ Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) on being the second person in the debate, which began at 4.45 this afternoon, to take less than 10 minutes to speak. I shall not name the other person because it might be embarrassing.
I welcome the report and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for all the hard work that she and her Committee have put into it. I was reassured by her comment that this was only the beginning of a process. I am sure that she is aware of the great well of support, particularly from new Labour Members, for radical change in how Parliament is run. If we are to achieve the modern Britain that we talk about, we need a modern Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) made the strongest case for that in this debate.
When many new Members came here—we were prepared for it—this place struck us as a men's club. Our hours are extraordinary. I do not argue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) suggests some of us might, for cutting our hours. We all realise that we are here to put in very long hours; otherwise, we would not have gone for this job. However, we have inherited 1115 our hours from an age when most Members of Parliament were not paid to work here or it was their second, third or fourth job. They came here in the afternoons.
I support my hon. Friends who have made the case for introducing a system of core hours in which we start at 10 or 11 o'clock in the morning and work until 7 o'clock in the evening. That does not mean that we could not have Committees in the evenings or outside those times. Previous speakers have already mentioned the effect that our existing hours have on family life. Many of us have no family life or loved ones within easy reach of the building, but many others do. I urge them to consider the fact that most businesses that operate effectively take into account people's basic human need to see their families. When the hours of the House were set, most of the men who inhabited these seats had few, if any, family responsibilities—that was all done by servants.
The length of speeches has already been mentioned by other hon. Members. Madam Speaker is already on record as expressing her concern that the BBC is thinking of getting rid of "Yesterday in Parliament". Over the past few years, many hon. Members have expressed concern about the decreasing interest, among not just the broadcast media but the printed media, in what happens in this Chamber. That is evidence, if any were needed, that we are, by and large, a turn-off. Most of the 15-minute speeches that I have heard since arriving here on 1 May could easily have been made in five minutes. We could then have fitted in more people. I whole-heartedly support the idea of restricting the length of speeches to 10 minutes. I do not understand why they could not be a little shorter.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) on his excellent maiden speech. The fact that he was here to make it reminded me of the problem that I had making mine. The problem is shared by many new Members, who sit through hours and hours of debate, having taken a long time preparing their maiden speech, and are then not called to speak. I heard of one hon. Member to whom that happened five times, so I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to consider the whole system of maiden speeches. Until a new Member makes a maiden speech, he or she is gagged. If that is not the strict rule, they at least feel gagged, because they cannot contribute to debates in the Chamber.
So far, no one has raised the issue of the dress code in the House. I do not mind wearing a suit every day, but I object to being told that I must do so. Others in the Chamber—please rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker if I am—have to sit here in diamante, buckled shoes, wearing swords and wigs. They may like that, but we should be aware of the image that we project to the world outside.
My next point is about applause. One of my abiding memories is of my first day in the Chamber for the re-election of Madam Speaker. I was sitting next to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). When the Prime Minister entered the Chamber, there was spontaneous applause from the Labour Benches. I shall not easily forget it because I received a sharp elbow in my ribs—I was one of those who were clapping—and it was made clear to me in no uncertain terms that applause was not allowed in the Chamber. Why not? Moments later, the most 1116 extraordinary animal noises were emanating from her mouth. Apparently, that was how we were supposed to express our appreciation. I do not know of any other modern Chamber in the world that does not allow polite applause.
Prayers are fine and I attend when I can, but I have to say as a high Anglican that I have not in years attended a church service where the prayers were as archaic as those we say in this Chamber at 2.30 pm.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), whom I shall reveal as the other hon. Member who spoke for less than 10 minutes today, talked about the seating. I know that doing so would not be physically easy, but I do not see why we cannot change the Chamber seating into a horseshoe shape. We do not need to move the Benches: Labour Members could all sit at one end, with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the other minority parties at the other. I know that that would not allow the confrontation across the Dispatch Boxes that we have now, but is that confrontation necessarily a good thing?
If we want to move to a new politics of a more collaborative or inquisitorial nature, why are we so hooked on the system of Front-Bench spokesmen—currently my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack)—facing each other at a distance of a few feet, often shouting at each other? Even if changing the seating meant that they sat further apart, they could still have a discourse, albeit one that was less confrontational.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley also mentioned that there is not room for us all in the Chamber. As a result, we have to stand, or sit in the Gangways, or sit in the Galleries or sit on Benches where we cannot contribute to the debate. I beg my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to consider changing the seating in that respect as well.
Finally, I want to emphasise a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase made most eloquently. One of the reasons we won such a big majority on 1 May was that the British public were fed up with politics as usual. Politicians, after journalists—none of whom have bothered to stay for this debate—are held in the lowest esteem according to every opinion poll. That has much to do with the "yah-boo" nature of this place and if we do not change that, we will be unable to restore the people's confidence in the political process. The report makes a great start and I hope that we will go much further.
§ 9.6 pm
§ Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Rothwell)
First, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to say how delighted I am that your predecessor in the Chair did not call me at a time that would have meant that I spoke before new Members who have been present for longer than I, because I have enjoyed listening to their speeches. They have been extremely helpful to me and, although I cannot say that I have agreed with everything that has been said, they have been imaginative speakers.
I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) on his maiden speech. I, too, was delighted by Derby County's play last Saturday when they appeared at Elland Road. I was not happy when they were 3-0 up, but I was very happy when, in the last 1117 minute, Leeds won the game. Nevertheless, Derby County contributed to the most entertaining game I have seen at Elland Road for a long time.
Turning to the subject of the debate, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. About a year ago, I heard her speak at a Charter 88 meeting in the House and many of the ideas that she talked about on that occasion are proposals that she is now seeking to put into practice through the Select Committee. I took particular note of her statement that there should besome kind of legislative consultation with a flexible range of options.Although not everything that she said has come to pass, the Select Committee's report has at least been put before the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said, we now have a Government who are committed to change. We also have a Leader of the House who knows how that change should be scrutinised, both in Committee and by the House. The report is a positive step and I wish my right hon. Friend every success in bringing about the changes that she envisaged a year ago. I shall comment briefly on them. I have decided to comment only on those matters that have not been done to death in the debate.
On pre-legislative scrutiny, I should say that the time that I have spent in Standing Committees has been pretty futile. I served on the Committee that considered the Bill that became the Railways Act 1993, relating to rail privatisation. That Bill, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North, was very long. Its scrutiny was conducted before our current hours were introduced, but no view expressed by the Opposition received any credence, despite the fact that we were dealing with matters of importance. They were also matters of high political controversy, so that may have been understandable, were it not for the fact that there were many points at which the Minister responsible for the Bill, and for piloting it through Committee, agreed that there was uncertainty about the detail of the way in which the Government were proceeding on certain issues.
As a result of the 1993 Act, jobs in the constituency that I then represented were lost, and a company went out of existence. There had been 130 years of railway manufacturing in Hunslet. That tradition was lost directly as a result of the Bill; that point was raised at the time, but it received scant regard. That was a failure of our system, which I hope that we shall change.
The changes that are proposed for Standing Committees are all-important, and I very much hope that they will all be put into practice.
Further discussion is needed on whether to use departmental Select Committees or to set up a specific Standing Committee to carry out pre-legislative work. The report of the Modernisation Committee is inconsistent about Select Committees and the use of departmental Select Committees. It says, or implies, that a departmental Committee would be overloaded if it involved itself in the draft scrutiny of the Bill.
Although that is arguable, it is inconsistent then to suggest that the same Select Committee might consider the Bill after it has come into effect. If a Select Committee has certain expertise, it is better for that expertise to be put to use before the Bill is further considered and before it becomes law than for it to be used to monitor the effects of the Act.
1118 I acknowledge that we ask a great deal of our departmental Select Committees. There is a case for an ad hoc specific Standing Committee or pre-legislative Committee in which ideas can be explored.
Why is there no reference in the report to civil service back-up? Select Committees are served by Committee Clerks, not civil servants, but that is an issue which should be considered in connection with modernising the House. Traditionally, the legislative branch and the Executive branch of the Government are in the House.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) that if there is a system of push-button voting, all members of the Government—the Executive—would find that they had so many demands on their time that it would become the norm for them to push the button instead of turning up and meeting their colleagues. That voting system would isolate the Executive. Under our system, the Executive is drawn from Members of Parliament and must be involved in the normal parliamentary processes. I believe that there is value in members of the Government being physically present to vote.
Why do we not use the civil service during pre-legislative consideration of Bills? I think that the public would support that proposal. We refer to "civil servants" and "public servants", but not to "Government servants". Yet the civil service serves the Government. I believe that there is a case for introducing civil service back-up for Committees scrutinising Bills, particularly before they are sent to Standing Committees.
Two hon. Members have mentioned the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill. I suggest to the Leader of the House that the Bill should be considered for rollover. I have received more constituency correspondence on that issue than any other—and I think that my experience is common to that of other hon. Members. Many people find it hard to accept the Government's explanation that Parliament does not have time to consider that legislation. I understand the Government's position: I understand the priorities involved when dealing with the other place and I understand the passage of constitutional matters through the House. However, I think that the people are right in failing to understand why Parliament does not have time to consider a measure that enjoys enormous public support.
The reasons cannot be explained away on the basis of the time that Parliament spent in recess. I am sure that, given time, the legislation would pass through the House. Therefore, I believe that the Government should consider the Bill for rollover. In those circumstances, we would have time to debate the legislation fully and to establish a special Select Committee—perhaps comprising Members from this and the other place—to consider the issues involved.
The report lists the issues in order of priority; the second is ministerial accountability. The House is not good with legislative processes, and the Committee is right to use that as a starting point. We are also not good at holding Ministers to account. Last year, the then shadow Leader of the House referred to the format of Prime Minister's Question Time. She suggested not how many times a week Prime Minister's questions should occur, but that we might have a more intelligent Prime Minister's Question Time if many questions were known in advance. Most of us—perhaps because it is the easiest 1119 thing to do or because we do not want to ask closed questions—just put "E" on the questions that we table. I believe that hon. Members' conservatism in tabling questions has put a stop to the idea of conducting Prime Minister's Question Time with advance notice of the questions.
Clearly, there is a place for spontaneous questions, but we seem to be reverting to the pattern as before. Some hon. Members table questions to the Prime Minister on subjects that greatly concern them—my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) certainly does that—but, in general, we follow a pattern that has become traditional in the House. We should consider ways of ensuring that more questions are given serious thought before being answered.
The issue of parliamentary questioning should be raised by the Modernisation Committee. I commend to the Leader of the House the Public Service Select Committee report on ministerial accountability which was issued in 1996. It deals with serious issues that must be studied with great care. There was a difference between the Select Committee and the Government on whether Parliament should be able to demand the resignation of a Minister. Perhaps that question should be revisited.
The way forward for parliamentary accountability that was seen by that Select Committee has largely been accepted in principle, but we have yet to see how it works out, especially with regard to the style of parliamentary questions. We get more answers now than we got previously, but there are still times when it is easy for a Minister who does not wish to answer not to do so. I do not think that there have been any false answers, although the report suggest a procedure for dealing with answers that a Member believes are not correct.
On the issue of holding Ministers and the Executive to account, I hope that the Leader of the House will pay due attention to the work done in the previous Parliament by the Select Committee, which, by and large agreed on its findings. Where a minority view was expressed, it should be considered carefully.
I have spoken for a good deal more than 10 minutes. When the Whip spoke to me, he suggested that I finish within a quarter of an hour. I hope that I have not spoken for quite that long.
§ Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) on his maiden speech. He and I both represent Derbyshire constituencies. We fought the 1992 election together, and we were both in local government in Derbyshire, where we overlapped for four years. I am sure that we will have a partnership in the House which lasts much longer than that.
I am one of the newer Members. This week, we have heard some scepticism about the role of newer Members. In the early days, when my name was put forward for membership of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, there were some grumbles from Opposition Members about the fact that three new Members were involved. We have heard the same arguments this week about other new Members on Committees.
1120 I like to think that those of us who are new to this place have established ourselves, and that those of us who have served on Select Committees have acquitted ourselves well. I believe that we have demonstrated that on the Standards and Privileges Committee. From the report before us, it seems that members of the Modernisation Committee have done so. Given the opportunity, I am sure that new Members will demonstrate their worth.
Against that background, I shall tell the House a short story. I was summoned by means of a card through the post to attend a meeting of a Standing Committee. I received the card on the Friday, read that it referred to a meeting during the following week and proceeded to do nothing about it at that moment. On the Monday I realised that the Standing Committee clashed with the meeting of the Select Committee of which I was a member. In my ignorance I thought that the Select Committee must come first. I was told, however, that the Standing Committee must come first.
By talking to the Whips, an intricate arrangement was arrived at whereby I would attend the meeting of the Select Committee, in a room that was in the same corridor as the room used by the Standing Committee. I was told that if there was a Division in the Standing Committee, a policeman would shout out at one door that a vote was taking place, another policeman would run down the Committee Corridor and another policeman would knock on the door of the Select Committee, summon me and take me to the of the Standing Committee room so that I might vote.
After two and a half hours in the Select Committee, I had not been called to the Standing Committee, which meant that there had not been a Division. Subsequently, I learnt that the Standing Committee had reported in 20 minutes flat. I do not know to this day what that Committee was discussing. I do not know what was said in that Committee and I do not know what the outcome was. I am not sure about the purpose of that Committee. I obviously went to the right Committee because I knew what was going on in the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges.
That story comes from my ignorance of the system, but I am still not sure what Standing Committees are for. It is clear that they can be all over in 20 minutes. They are not about the detailed inspection of legislation that is the potential of Select Committees. I am much in favour of having pre-legislative Select Committees to examine draft legislation as well as post-legislative Committees. There should be two different bodies of Committees so that Members who consider legislation that finds its way on to the statute book are not involved in considering that legislation in draft form. It is a good idea to have two different groups involved in scrutiny. In that way there would be a greater Back-Bench role.
As some hon. Members have said, the Child Support Agency is an example of legislation that was launched with the best of intentions. A major review took place during the previous Parliament and another review may yet take place. Despite that background, there is still unfairness in the system. There are inefficiencies and contradictions in the way in which the organisation operates. Those shortcomings could have been discovered by more thorough pre-legislative scrutiny, along with more effective and powerful post-legislative scrutiny. If that process had been followed, the system would have 1121 been better for our constituents and the reputation of the agency, and its effectiveness in carrying out the job that we thought we were giving it would have been enhanced.
I receive three or four new CSA cases in my postbag every week, and other hon. Members tell me that they receive more. The majority of those cases stem from legislation that seemed all right at the time, but did not receive proper scrutiny.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) talked about the usefulness of the Lobby for tapping people on the shoulder, for example. Surely we have new technology for recording votes more efficiently, which is the metallic stripe on the back of our identity cards. I do not know why that stripe cannot be used as a swipe card to register our attendance as we pass through the Lobby.
My constituency is on the straight line between Manchester and Sheffield. That means that I can spend a couple of hours in my office on Monday morning and return by late morning on the Friday. I have the entire Friday afternoon in the constituency while the House is sitting. That seems to be a pretty good arrangement. I appreciate that Members who have more difficult travel arrangements find it impossible to achieve the same balance between work in the House and work in the constituency. I would not like to see the start and end of our working week to change that much.
As one who does not have the opportunity for family life on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays while the House is sitting, I am happy to go along with what the Whips ask me to do between Monday and Thursday, but I would rather not have to sit through the night if we can avoid it.
It has been suggested that 10-minute speeches may be too long. The Labour party conference has just agreed that to decide policy on the basis of a series of three-minute speeches is not right either, because it does not allow the scrutiny and advancement of arguments that should take place when policy decisions are made. Therefore, 10 minutes is probably about the right length for speeches in the House, but there should be the opportunity for injury time, and so on.
One of the advantages of being a Member for Derbyshire is that if we have problems about procedure we can always go to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for an explanation. That is a useful asset. That is the thought, combined with the one that however good we think we are we can always do better, with which I shall leave the House.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt). It has been an interesting debate. I have been thinking a lot about Jopling this evening. I was one of those who were very much in favour of the Jopling report. I urged my right hon. and hon. Friends to accept it and I voted for it. But Thursdays were different before Jopling, and the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) was right in much, although not all, of what he said. There is a lesson for us there. In seeking to reform the House, we must be careful that we do not reform the life out of it. That is crucial.
It was a pleasure to hear the maiden speech by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton). He paid a gracious tribute to his predecessor, Greg Knight, which 1122 was appreciated by Conservative Members. Greg Knight had a fine reputation here and, having spoken in the hon. Gentleman's constituency last week—I properly informed him that I would be so doing—I know that he had a great reputation in his constituency too. I know that the hon. Gentleman will seek to emulate him in that. I cannot wish him a long stay in the House, but I wish him an extremely happy one.
It was also good to hear the hon. Gentleman pay tribute to Phillip Whitehead, whom hon. Members from all parts of the House will remember with affection. He was a distinguished Member and is now a distinguished Member of the European Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman brings to the House a considerable experience of local government, and that was implicit in almost everything that he said. He had an essentially cautious and evolutionary approach, which I find attractive. It has much to commend it. He said that he was particularly concerned about legislation and its quality, and so should we all be. He also said that he had developed some affection for some of the traditions, even some of the more quaint ones, of the House of Commons. That, again, rather endeared him to me.
The hon. Gentleman also said that he thought the reforms to the Order Paper had been sensible, logical and helpful. No one who has spoken in the debate who has referred to the Order Paper—several hon. Members have—has had anything other than praise for it. We are very much in the debt of those Clerks who were particularly responsible for drawing up the new draft Order Papers. It is not customary to talk about the Clerks in this place, but it could not run without them. They give devoted service, many of them over many years, and the way in which they responded with alacrity to the Committee's request was commendable.
Alas, I am no longer a member of the Modernisation Committee, but I was a member throughout its discussion of this report and attended every session. I pay tribute to the President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), for the exemplary manner in which she chaired our proceedings. Her approach was exceptionally fair and balanced throughout and the report is sensible and sound. I have no hesitation in commending it most warmly to the House.
The report is concerned with the legislative process. Many hon. Members have taken the opportunity, legitimately, to refer to other changes that they would like made. That is fine, but I hope that the Committee will approach each subject with deliberation. I am not saying that it should not consider all the subjects to which hon. Members have referred, but it should do so with care, thoroughness and without time constraints.
There was a time constraint on this report. The right hon. Lady promised the House that the Committee would be established and would report before the end of July. She was anxious to deliver on her promise, and every member of the Committee was anxious to assist her. The report was all the more welcome for coming just before the House rose for the recess. Hon. Members were glad about the changes to the Order Paper, and were also glad that we had done something about the voting system.
I hope that the Committee will consider further matters, particularly the voting system, carefully and in a measured way. Several hon. Members said that they valued the 1123 present voting system, because it enables them to talk to Ministers and others in the Lobby. We would be much the poorer if we went electronic, especially if it cleared the Lobby.
We have heard many interesting speeches. As was to be expected, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) made a wise and perceptive speech. The House owes him a great deal for the selfless service that he has given in a variety of capacities. Since he ceased to be a Minister of the Crown, he has been a most distinguished Chairman of some key Committees. In his present role, he has massive responsibilities, and I can think of no one in whom I would have greater trust or confidence. He made some interesting comments, and he put it succinctly and perfectly when he said that the Government want to get their business through, but the Opposition need their time.
Hon. Members are realists, or ought to be. It is futile for us to suggest that we will deflect the Government from their legislative intentions. The Government have a massive majority, and unless there is the most extraordinary rebellion by Labour Members, they will get through every piece of legislation that they put before us. That places an extra responsibility on the Government to ensure that legislation is carefully thought out. The Government should be relaxed about the time that they give the House to consider legislation.
I hope that the Government will react positively to the report. The right hon. Member for Dewsbury has a double personality: she is the Chairman of the Committee and the Leader of the House, and in both of those capacities her first duty is to the House of Commons. She is also a senior member of the Executive, and wearing that hat she is as anxious as any of her ministerial colleagues to see that legislation is passed. The proof of the report will be in the right hon. Lady being able to ensure that the first part of her responsibilities at least equals the second, and it would be good if the first part could sometimes triumph over the second.
A number of hon. Members made perceptive comments about legislation. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) apologised, because he had to attend a long-standing constituency engagement. He said that better legislation requires less legislation. He also made the important point that if Lords amendments are to be properly considered, the House must give them adequate time.
Now is not the time or the place to discuss the relationship between the two Houses, or to discuss what may happen in the future; but the House of Lords—the other place—currently has a very important legislative role. It scrutinises, and it has great expertise to bring to its scrutiny. Although it cannot throw out any legislation with which the elected House wishes to proceed—which is right—it can say to us, "Think again", and sometimes when it says, "Think again", it is wise for us to think again.
In the days when the Conservative party had a massive majority, after the 1983 general election, the House of Lords performed a signal service, several times seeking to amend legislation that certainly needed to be amended. Sometimes, its amendments were taken on board and its warnings were heeded; sometimes, they were not. 1124 I believe, however, that a system that does not give adequate time for consideration of what is said in the other place is a deficient system.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) has also given a lifetime of parliamentary service, particularly in regard to procedure. His chairmanship of the Procedure Committee has been immensely distinguished: indeed, the report builds on much of what his Committee has done in the past. He made a powerful point about the disgrace of the fact that large chunks of legislation are not even debated. I have been moved to anger about that in the past. I remember walking out of one guillotine debate, although the motion had been moved by my own Government, because I was so angry about the fact that a large part of a particularly important Bill was receiving no attention. That must not happen in the future; if it does happen, we shall have wasted our time with the report. My right hon. Friend also mentioned the Chairmen's Panel—as did the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), in a very passionate speech.
Until I was reincarnated on the Front Bench, I was the longest-serving member of the Chairmen's Panel. I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman said—as, I am sure, would you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is very important for the Chairmen's Panel to be heeded, and for its caveats to be considered carefully. We should be grateful to both my right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman for making that point.
I am sorry that I missed the speeches by the hon. Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) and for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) while I was having a brief snack. They were the only speeches that I did miss. My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), however, gave me copious notes about what they had said. Both have played a constructive part in the Committee's deliberations, although they have been a little over-hasty in some respects.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)—who is not present now—made a thoughtful speech. He is my constituency neighbour, and a very good neighbour he is too. He is anxious for Parliament to regain something of its prestige, and some public esteem. He expressed a number of constructive thoughts; I did not agree with all of them, but he made some interesting comments and suggestions.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
It was, and it would repay close study by all hon. Members, including those who are not present this evening.
The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey)—another active member of the Committee—made a particularly good point when she said that the Government must not regard improvements to legislation as defeat, and that, when amendments were being considered, the Government should be open-minded. The Government should consider whether an amendment would indeed improve the Bill involved, and, if it would, they should be prepared to concede and 1125 should not consider that a defeat. I hope that the present Government will heed what the hon. Lady said, and adopt that attitude.
§ Dr. Starkey
Will the hon. Gentleman also say that it is up to the Opposition not to gloat and take it as a Government defeat when the Government accept their amendments in a constructive spirit?
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
That is a very good sentiment, but we are all human and we all love a bit of a gloat occasionally. It is the triumph of hope over experience if the hon. Lady thinks that she is going to banish gloating from the Palace of Westminster, but, of course, I take her point.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch is a worthy chip off the old block. Many of us in the House regard his late father with great affection. It was a terrible tragedy when he was killed and a great loss to Parliament. I disagreed with almost everything that he said, but I admired enormously his mastery of our procedures, his persistence and his use of every procedural device; he did it in a way of which Keir Hardie would have been proud. Bob Cryer was a distinguished parliamentarian and the hon. Gentleman seems cast in the same mould. He certainly does not seem to be a man who will be cowed by a Government Whip and I am delighted by that.
I agreed with everything that the hon. Gentleman said about hours, but I gently take issue with what he said about holidays. I am sure that he is as conscientious a constituency Member as his late father was. He never regarded recesses as holidays. He worked jolly hard throughout them and most of us do. That is an important point. In my 27 years in the House, I have never had more than 17 days' consecutive holiday and I do not think that I am unusual in that. It is important that we say that often.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones), who is a next-door neighbour of mine in constituency terms, made an admirably lucid and brief speech. She made some good points about timed speeches, but the essence of debate is and must be spontaneity. It is important that there should be opportunity for intervention. If one is always working against a timetable, it is impossible to have interventions. It is a great pity when Members come into the Chamber—she acknowledged this partly, but not sufficiently—read their speeches, sometimes gabbling through them, and are not prepared to give way. They plead in aid the fact that Madam Speaker has imposed a time limit and it stifles debate. I must sit down in a moment so that the Leader of the House gets her 10 minutes, but I add just this.
In the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons and in all our other deliberations, we must try to bring life back into this Chamber, which should be the cockpit of the nation. I find it infinitely depressing when Members contribute to debates—this does not apply to the hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, almost every one of whom has spoken and come back to his or her place—and then go off and do not return, as happens so often.
I wonder whether we should consider taking a leaf out of the book of the other place, so that Members can put in their names. In doing so, they know that they will be called, but are expected to be here throughout. Apart from leaving to take perhaps an urgent telephone call, to answer 1126 a call of nature or to take the briefest of snacks, they should be in this Chamber because it is absolutely destructive of proper debate if we have merely a series of spasmodic utterances, with hon. Members who have contributed then leaving. We need this Chamber to be full. The Select Committee, which is full of experienced members, should bend its collective mind to find out what it can do to encourage Members to be here more often, to take part in debates more vigorously and to stay to listen to what their colleagues have to say.
§ Mrs. Ann Taylor
With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to say a few words in reply to the debate. I will not have as much time as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) to deal with every contribution, but that is fine by me because, in many respects, he was replying on behalf of those of us who served on the Committee. As I said earlier, it was a constructive Committee which produced a unanimous report.
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire was right to say that we have not had what he called "spasmodic utterances" during this debate. We have had a good example today of how Parliament can work and how hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber can listen to the contributions of others and make their own points in the context of an overall constructive debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) made an extremely competent maiden speech which I am sure will please his constituents. He showed extremely good knowledge of their problems and the issues that concern them most. He ventured on to the subject of football, which is a somewhat dangerous thing to do if I am in the Chamber. In that respect, all I have in common with him is the fact that in Bolton we, too, have a new stadium. I have not visited his yet and Derby County has not yet visited Bolton. Perhaps we will see each other later in the year when we can talk about the modernisation of Parliament for 90 minutes—or perhaps not.
Today's debate has shown that the whole House basically welcomes the thrust of the recommendations in the Committee's report. Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have emphasised different parts of the report or have suggested modifications to certain elements of what we have proposed. Some have suggested ideas that we might wish to take further forward. Basically, almost everybody who has spoken has, in one way or another, supported the ideas in the report.
In many respects, that is not surprising, because we have heard from a mixture of experienced Members and new Members. It is sometimes said that it is only new Members who want to see change in this Chamber. We have seen today that, with one or two exceptions, that is not the case. There are many hon. Members who have spent many years in the House and who do not feel that the best use has always been made of the time they have spent here. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) is showing himself to be a true moderniser by pretending to applaud instead of saying, "Hear, hear." I do not think that we should provoke Mr. Deputy Speaker too much on this occasion.
As the hon. Member for South Staffordshire said, the contribution made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) was wise and 1127 perceptive. He took an overview of the changes that are needed and managed to throw in one or two practical changes which might be achieved quite quickly if we were to take them up. He gave us food for thought in that respect.
The same is true of the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor). As a former Leader of the House, he made a positive contribution to the debate and put the changes that we propose into context. He gave us hope that we could achieve a great deal in the future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), whom I have known for many years, is a member of the Committee. He showed his normal common sense in his approach to the debate and his usual honesty. He admitted that, on occasion, he had been party to some of the time-wasting deliberations that have had to take place in the past. After so many years in opposition, we both feel that the weapon of delay never really achieved anything. It might have caused some frustration to Ministers on a few occasions, but it never achieved anything. There was never anything constructive about it. We must try to find ways for everybody to be constructive critics, if that is what is needed. That requires a degree of willingness to listen on the part of the Government.
There will be matters on which there will be no meeting of minds, as the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) mentioned, but on other occasions—I return to debates on the Child Support Agency as an example—we do not have to be confrontational on every issue that comes up. We should not deny the fact that hon. Members on both sides of the House can on occasions agree. We should not pretend that such occasions can never occur and gear all our procedures towards that.
The right hon. Member for East Devon, who has been a member of the Committee as well as having a distinguished record as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, proved that point when he talked of Bills being passed after only a quarter or a third of their contents had been discussed. That was why he was looking for a constructive way of using timetabling, as he had said before.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) was less happy with some of the changes. Perhaps I can reassure him—not least because his last point, on which I was going to intervene, related to experiments. We are not trying to change Standing Orders in such a way that we never learn anything and lock ourselves into new procedures which may not work well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), who has also contributed a great deal to the Committee, described the expectation of a changed atmosphere in the House due to more women Members of Parliament. We would all like behaviour to improve in the House, for whatever reason. I thought that the point of order that she raised yesterday about the attitude of hon. Members to the swearing in of a new Member was totally valid. I was very pleased that Madam Speaker reinforced my hon. Friend's point.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), who is also a member of the Committee—a new member—said that he hoped that he had punched his weight. I can assure him that he did. We found his contributions 1128 extremely useful. He said that he hoped that the Government would deliver the report. I know that he understands that we do not deliver the report. The report and the changes can be brought about only through good will and co-operation on both sides of the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who I understand has had to go back to his constituency, made some telling points, which put the debate into perspective. His contribution was extremely significant. It is important that we realise that, although our proposed changes are part of modernising our overall constitution, it should not be regarded as a threatening process. We should ensure that it is used constructively.
The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) told us that he was impetuous when he was young, but that now he had settled down to using the procedures. There may have been times when his Whips thought that he was still a little impetuous, but I shall leave him to sort that out with them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), who has also contributed to the Committee's work, brought out the necessary analysis. We must lay down the principles and get them right, but we need to get the practicalities right as well. It has been useful having new members of the Committee who have understood so quickly how Parliament works but not lost their enthusiasm for change. I hope that that helps to keep us on our toes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer), who, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire said, is following in his father's footsteps to a certain extent—I must admit that I did not always agree with his father on procedural matters either—made some valuable points about timetabling, the changes that have already happened and what we should do now to ensure that any future change is practical. I agree with him—so did the Committee—about using voting time to buttonhole and lobby Ministers. That is one of the things that we hope we do not have to lose.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Ms Jones) referred to shorter speeches. We should consider the basic point of flexibility. Indeed, we might be able to take up the point made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire about what happens in the other place, which was endorsed by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw).
My hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Mr. Gunnell), who is a near neighbour of mine, made some interesting points. I cannot guarantee that we are even thinking of rolling over the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, although I know that that will disappoint him. The point that he made about civil service support for Select Committees in appropriate circumstances is one which we must consider.
My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) has had experience of a Select Committee, and he reminded me that we need to consider the names of the Committees, because that small practical step might help the House.
I am grateful for the approach that all hon. Members who have spoken have taken, and so is the Modernisation Committee. I thank everyone who has been involved in its work. That work is a process, not an event, and it will continue.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House approves the First Report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons: The Legislative Process (HC 190).