§ The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)
I beg to move,That this House approves the Third and Fourth Reports from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on Carry-over of Public Bills and Conduct in the Chamber (HC 543 and 600).First, I welcome the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) to the debate. He has had to deal with business questions and a debate on modernisation on the same day, so I hope that he will soon feel truly initiated into his new role.
The purpose of the debate is straightforward—to seek the approval of the House to the changes proposed in the third and fourth reports of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons.
The Committee's first report, which dealt with the legislative process, recommended that, in appropriate cases, carry-over could be used as a positive means of improving the quality of legislation—the report was agreed by the House on 13 November last year. Our third report brings the attention of the House to a memorandum by the Clerks of both Houses on how the carry-over procedure could operate in practice. I should make it clear that the Government do not yet have any specific Bill in mind that should be subject to the procedure. Moreover, no change to Standing Orders is required at this stage. However, we should be clear about the process and the restrictions that would be placed on its use.
The basic reasons for having some end-of-Session flexibility were laid out in our first report, but it may be worth reiterating them. It may mean that, in time, we can move towards spreading legislation more evenly throughout a parliamentary Session. We may be able to avoid Bills having to be rushed through just before the end of the Session to avoid the cut-off. As the Modernisation Committee pointed out, introducing this flexibility gives the Government some assurance that any extra time that might be necessary for extra scrutiny—such as by means of a draft Bill, or by using the mechanism of a Special Standing Committee—would not put a Bill at risk.
Essentially, the carry-over procedure would be used in co-operation through the usual channels and between the two Houses. The Committee has suggested first that the Government Bills to be carried over should not have completed their passage through the House in which they originated—that is, not sent to the second House—although, presumably, they will have been advanced as far as possible. Secondly, it is suggested that they should be carried over by specific ad hoc motions and not by any easy change to Standing Orders. Thirdly, they should be Bills whose eligibility for the carry-over has been agreed through the usual channels. Those are important safeguards which should be mentioned.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
This is a very important point. Am I to take it that it will be made clear that this will be allowed to happen only on the basis of total agreement and on non-controversial matters, because, frankly, should this become a habit, it could become an extremely dangerous precedent in the hands of some Governments?
§ Mrs. Taylor
I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend. I and Committee members with ministerial experience in 552 previous Governments pointed out that worthy Bills can be squeezed because other measures have a high level of political priority. If certain measures could be introduced towards the end of a Session, it might be possible to deal with some of the important issues for which there is cross-party support. Those could be dealt with in a more measured way than is sometimes the case when we have the cut-off.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
I fully accept my right hon. Friend's point, and she has done some good work on both reports. I am not sure whether we would need a motion on each of the matters to be carried over—a necessary safeguard, I should have thought—and whether the motions would be debatable. The report does not mention what sort of time my right hon. Friend has in mind for such a debate. Can she enlighten us?
§ Mrs. Taylor
I hope that there will be agreement, but we would need the safeguard of allowing the House to express its opinion and we would need the House's formal approval. I would envisage that we would debate such a motion.
§ Mrs. Taylor
Yes, were there to be more than one in any Session. At the moment, we are in new territory, and I have in mind no specific Bill on which to use the procedure in this Session. There is plenty of time to discuss the details of how this will work.
Part of the reason for discussing the principle is to encourage the Government to be less hesitant. Previous Governments have always been hesitant about allowing Bills either to go to Special Standing Committees or to be considered in draft form by Select Committees, simply because of the time constraints that the cut-off at the end of a Session can provide. It is envisaged that specific motions would be moved on any measure proposed to be dealt with in this way.
I remind the House that the Procedure Committee in the House of Lords recently recommended similar procedures to those I am proposing. It acknowledged that a Bill carried over in one Session and sent up from the Commons at the start of the subsequent Session should be treated in the same way as other Bills. Paragraphs 13 and 14 of the appendix to the Modernisation Committee's third report make it clear that the carry-over should not give rise to any particular problems for the Lords, which is generally willing to accept this procedure.
The Committee's fourth report, "Conduct in the Chamber", covers a wide variety of areas in which Members rightly feel that the House's way of working needs to be brought up to date. Looking at the list of recommendations, it is surprising that some of those procedures have survived for so long. The recommendations are a mixture of procedural and administrative changes, some of which can be implemented by the Chair, while others will need changes to Standing Orders—hence the motion.
Some hon. Members think that the changes we are proposing are not necessarily the last word in terms of how the House conducts itself. The report deals with issues such as time limits on speeches; the ending of the 553 automatic precedent for Privy Councillors; and ending some of the anachronisms, such as opera hats for points of order in Divisions, spying strangers and the banning of quotations from the Lords. The report also contains some simple measures to be more helpful to Members, such as putting the names of Members' constituencies on the annunciator and, where possible, giving notice on the annunciator and the PDVN of time limits on speeches.
I will deal first with changes that can be implemented by the Speaker without any change to Standing Orders. The first is our recommendation in paragraph 28 that the Speaker should beunder no obligation to give any precedence to Privy Councillors in debate.Considering the initial reaction, that may the most welcome of the changes we have suggested. I am aware that some, although not all, Privy Councillors have reservations.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
Are we to understand from the rather delicate way in which this has been expressed that the recommendation that the Speaker be under no obligation to give precedence to Privy Councillors implies that Privy Councillors have, in the past, perhaps had a rather undue share of the cake in terms of the length of time allocated for speaking in the House? It has been rather difficult to understand why people who have had a lengthy career, but who have not necessarily illuminated the House during that career, should get the biggest share of the time.
§ Mrs. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman has illuminated the House with the reasons for the change. That is why I said that it was one of the more welcome changes we have proposed. There are one or two Privy Councillors who have some reservations, but many others think that it is a reasonable change.
I hope that the House will accept the principle that all Members are equal, and that we all have an equal right to be considered to speak in any debate. It is a fact that some Privy Councillors will receive priority in certain debates because of specific roles that they occupy. For example, they might be the Chair of a specific Select Committee, which might mean that they receive preference in a particular debate. However, they should not get automatic preference just because they are Privy Councillors.
The second point in terms of proposals that do not require a change to Standing Orders is the old practice of banning direct quotations from speeches made in the House of Lords in a current Session of Parliament. We recommend that that should be abolished, and it is right that we should be able to quote whomever we wish without fear of being pulled up.
The third recommendation concerns how we behave in the House. Members who are here for a debate should be here at the beginning, should listen to others who speak, should stay after speaking, unless they have compelling reasons not to, and should certainly reappear for the winding-up speeches. On many recent occasions, it has been brought to the attention of the House that Members have not obeyed the usual courtesies of debate and have not listened to the speeches of others. Members who fail to observe the normal conventions of the House should not expect to get priority in being called to speak in future.
554 We have suggested that the Speaker should indicate to Members that that will be the case if they do not observe courtesies that should be obvious to any Member who is genuinely interested in a debate. Madam Speaker has indicated that she is "fully sympathetic" to that idea, although, understandably, she does not want to be placed under an absolute obligation to write to every Member on every minor transgression. We can leave it to the Speaker's discretion.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
In discussions around the building over the past fortnight, I have become aware that many Members do not appreciate that recommendation, but it is one of the best to come from the Committee. It is extremely discourteous to expect other people to listen to our speeches, but to fail to return to the Chamber to listen to others. Can my right hon. Friend give any hint of how such matters will be quickly made known to Members so that the recommendation is enforced?
§ Mrs. Taylor
My hon. Friend raises a genuine point. We sometimes assume that every Member reads every Select Committee report—including those of the Modernisation Committee—and every line of Hansard. That may not be the case. There will be occasions on which Madam Speaker will wish to draw points to the attention of Members; on other occasions, the Whips will wish to do so. Members who are not present for winding-up speeches cannot expect Ministers automatically to respond to their points. A combination of those factors may lead Members to understand the reasons for the conventions. They are simple courtesies, and, if a Member is genuinely interested in a debate, they are the least that can be expected.
Our fourth recommendation relates to the absolute ban on direct quotations in supplementary questions. We recommend that it be lifted, although, as we have said, the Speaker should not hesitate to stop lengthy questions. The fact that a Member is quoting is no excuse for making a question unduly long. I am sure that Madam Speaker will not hesitate to act when necessary.
We recommend a new procedure for raising points of order during a Division. At present, we have the opera hat, and, although some Members may feel that they look particularly fetching in it, it makes the House of Commons look ridiculous when someone wearing the hat is trying to raise a point of order from a seated position while everyone else is milling around and going to vote.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
The point is that everyone is milling around. If we must get rid of the opera hat, there must be some means by which a Member can indicate in the melee that he or she wishes to make a point of order.
§ Mrs. Taylor
We dealt with that point in the report by suggesting that Members, having indicated to the Clerk or the Chair that they wish to make a point of order, should be able to do so. We suggest that a Member should do so from a position on the second Bench, as close as possible to the Chair and the Clerks' Table so that he or she can be heard by the Chair and by the Official Report without obstructing the movement of Members to the Lobby. I understand that the hon. Gentleman wants to be sure 555 that Members will still be able, in rare circumstances, to make points of order, but we have offered an alternative that might be used.
§ Mr. Bennett
I accept that it is difficult to make a point of order during a Division. When we put the hat on, most of the rose of the House is amused by our appearance. However, although having a special place to stand is perfectly all right for the person making the point of order, it often happens that once a Member has made a point claiming that something is absolutely outrageous, another Member wants to rebut it quickly. If one is standing in the far corner, it will not be easy, after hearing a point of order, to rush to the second Bench to make a point.
§ Mrs. Taylor
It is not for other Members to rebut points of order, but for the Speaker.
If we adopt the new procedure, what should happen to the top hats that have been in the Chamber until now? I understand that we have two hats here normally. Perhaps one could be displayed in our archive near the old annunciator downstairs. I am sure that many Members would like the other as a souvenir, but I do not think it best to do that with it. Perhaps we should find a way to raise money for charity by disposing of the hat. Perhaps Madam Speaker could give some thought to that.
§ Mrs. Taylor
My hon. Friend makes an intriguing suggestion, and I will convey it to my hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio. Wherever the hat goes, we will make sure that any money raised is used for a very good purpose.
The Committee also recommended a couple of simple administrative changes. First, the constituency as well as the name of the Member who has the Floor should be displayed on the annunciators that are visible throughout the Palace of Westminster. That simple change would be of assistance, as would our second suggestion, that details of proposed time limits on speeches should be put out to Members on the annunciator and the PDVN.
Madam Speaker has made it clear that she seesthe logic of this and it may well be possible to implement it on some (or indeed most) occasions",but she adds:Equally, however, there will be occasions when I am not in a position to do so.That relates to whether Members inform the Speaker early enough that they wish to speak in a debate. Sometimes, Members inform her office rather late in the day, and it would not be possible at, say, 1 pm to indicate that a decision had been taken. Madam Speaker has undertaken to use her "best endeavours" to provide such information, and the House should accept her offer. If Members give the Speaker better notice of a wish to speak, it will be more likely that they will get a warning that a time limit has been placed on debate.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way.
556 Does the Modernisation Committee acknowledge that its recommendation threatens the spontaneity of debate in the House? I have always thought that one of the points of having debates in the Commons was that Members could listen to speeches and then feel moved to seek to catch the Speaker's eye. Does the Leader of the House accept that to oblige us all to write in advance, before we have heard the debate, could stultify the process and kill off the spontaneity of debate that I hope the House still treasures?
§ Mrs. Taylor
If the right hon. Gentleman is concerned about the spontaneity of debate, I hope that he will support the suggestions on interventions, time limits and injury time that I am about to move on to. They are critical if we are to ensure that debates are more spontaneous.
Time limits can apply at the moment. If they are to apply, and Madam Speaker can make an early decision on the matter, it is reasonable that hon. Members who wish to speak know that that is the case so that they can prepare a 10 or 15-minute speech, rather than thinking that they have the time to make a long speech and having to curtail it at the last moment. If there are to be time limits, surely there is nothing wrong in informing Members that that is to be the case.
§ Mr. Forth
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way again. I have no problem with time limits—I hope that we all strive to be concise. My difficulty is that if we constrain too tightly the requirement always to notify the Speaker in writing if one wishes to contribute, the danger will be that hon. Members who might not have thought that they would speak, but who attend the debate and listen to other speeches, may wish to contribute but simply not be able to do so. Would the Leader of the House share my regret if that were ever to be the case?
§ Mrs. Taylor
It is not a question of excluding people. There is not always high demand to speak in debates, although in many debates there is. If hon. Members have been waiting for a specific debate and have written to the Speaker and prepared in advance, and if they have perhaps not spoken for some time, that should be taken into account. I am not saying that one should not be able to participate in a debate if one has not written to the Speaker; nor is the Modernisation Committee.
§ Mr. Cash
Occasionally, statements are made—the practice has become frequent in the past few years—on days when there is controversial business. They take up a great deal of time and thus considerably curtail debate on the main business, much to the infuriation of hon. Members who wanted to speak. Some people believe that that has been done deliberately to reduce the length of the main debate. Statements are bound to affect whether Madam Speaker wishes to impose a time limit. Will the right hon. Lady comment on that and on the eight-minute rule, to which she has not yet referred and about which the House can reasonably expect some explanation?
§ Mrs. Taylor
I will deal with the hon. Gentleman's final point when I come to the changes that require amendments to the Standing Orders. The usual complaint from Opposition Members about statements is that we do not have enough of them. Now we have a complaint that 557 statements conflict with the desire for longer debates on certain matters. The hon. Gentleman merely illustrates the dilemma that we always face when we consider whether to have a statement on a particular issue. It always has to be a balance between the importance of the statement and the importance and pressure of the debate. Sometimes, statements are moved to protect Opposition days and there is always the possibility that a private notice question may be granted, which can also cut into the time for debate.
The first recommendation of the Committee that involves amendments to the Standing Orders—I hope that Opposition Members who have intervened will welcome this change—is that extra time should be allowed for interventions in short speeches when there is a time limit. If hon. Members are inhibited from giving way during their speech to let other Members make a point, it can inhibit debate and lead to set speeches, with no flexibility. I raised that matter on the Floor of the House when we originally debated the Jopling changes in December 1994 and argued that we should consider the possibility of injury time. The experience since then has shown that there is a very strong case indeed for injury time, but we say that it should be for interventions and not for the full length of any answer; otherwise, it could lead to abuse of the time limit. I hope that the House will agree that there is a strong case for that.
Our next recommendation is that the Speaker should be given discretion to impose a variable time limit on speeches. At the moment, the limit is 10 minutes between certain hours. There may be occasions when that is not the most appropriate limit. For example, in a debate where there is much pressure, but it is not intense, if everyone speaks for 15 minutes, every hon. Member who wants to speak may be able to do so, whereas if someone hogs the debate and takes much longer they will not. That was the reason for the recommendation. We decided on the lower limit of eight minutes, for example, for an order or a prayer after 10 pm, with only one and a half hours for debate, when there is great pressure. We thought that that limit might be useful on some occasions, but we do not envisage its being used frequently—certainly not in the near future. We thought it right to have that option for very short debates.
Another recommendation is that hon. Members who are named by the Chair should lose their parliamentary salary for the period of their suspension and be excluded from the precincts. The latter point was considered by the Committee because it dealt with what we considered a loophole in the rule, which was shown up in the previous Parliament. Our proposal was recommended by the Procedure Committee then.
Standing Orders provide for exclusion from the precincts for those who are suspended for disorder in the Chamber, but not for those suspended for other reasons—for example, following the report from the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. It is right to be consistent in our approach on those matters. Such a restriction would not prevent hon. Members from carrying out their constituency duties.
The other recommendation that I must mention is the way in which we deal with the old procedure of spying strangers. The Modernisation Committee made a recommendation that would have had consequences that it had not foreseen: a motion could be passed in a well-attended House, and the business could be lost. Also, it was not a motion which could be used on all occasions. 558 For example, if the House were debating a matter on the Adjournment, the procedure could not be used because there would be no next business.
The Standing Order change that I am suggesting would keep present procedure but dispense with the antiquated—and to some, offensive—wording. A Member would have to move that we should sit in private session, rather than using the words, "I spy strangers." The ability to use such a procedure is an important safety valve for individual Members and provides minimum change while modernising the language. Of course, the procedure could still be used to demonstrate the lack of a quorum if that was what the Member had in mind.
§ Mr. Sheldon
We used to have the count—a procedure used to ensure that 40 Members were always present in the Chamber. That was of particular value in ensuring that hon. Members were present and that we did not have the depleted numbers that we have now. The change was one of Dick Crossman's less elegant ideas. At some stage in the future perhaps we might consider some variation on the count to ensure that the House is properly representative of the people who send us here.
§ Mrs. Taylor
My right hon. Friend makes a valid point, but, as I said, the procedure can be used to demonstrate whether there is a quorum.
There is only one significant change mentioned in our previous debate on the subject that we have not taken on board. That is whether we should refer to Members by name or by constituency. The Committee felt that we should make no change in that respect. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) said in the previous debate that he wanted constituency references to continue because Members of Parliament are here as representatives of constituents, not in their own right. You, Madam Speaker, have pointed out on occasion that if we referred to each other by name, Members might be more likely to get hot-tempered or carried away.
I think that I have dealt with all the points in the third and fourth reports. I was going to mention the electronic voting report that came out today and progress on other matters. Suffice it to say that, because of the time that I have taken as a result of accepting interventions, I will not detain the House further.
We think that we are making good progress in testing some of the changes that we suggested in our first report. The Committee's future work will include a report on scrutiny of European legislation; we hope that it will be published quickly. We will then move on to discussing the parliamentary calendar. The changes that the House is being asked to approve tonight are not dramatic, but they are significant and I believe that, over time, they will improve the workings of the House of Commons.
§ Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)
I thank the right hon. Lady for her kind words at the beginning of her speech. I look forward to working with her for most of the time, but, inevitably, against her from time to time. I hope to make the transition from debating Eurofighters to debating top hats without too much discontinuity.
I welcome the two reports, which seem to be a sensible, pragmatic approach to reform. It is easy for me to commend the work of the Select Committee because I am 559 not yet a member of it. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), whose co-operative approach at the beginning of the Committee's agenda helped get it off to a good start. I also commend the Leader of the House for the way in which she chaired the Committee, exhibiting patience when confronted with a wide range of views and distilling them into a consensus.
Like other hon. Members, I got a parliamentary brief on the work of the Modernisation Committee and its reports in my post from Charter 88 a few days ago. I thought that its comments on the work of the Committee were a bit harsh. The ones that caught my eye were: "extremely cautious", "disappointing" andminor amendments to existing practice".However, paragraph 2 of the fourth report makes it clear that the reports are an initial response, focusing on areas where immediate action can be taken. Charter 88 should suspend its judgment for three or four years until it can consider the work of the Committee in the round.
I certainly prefer this cautious, incremental approach to the roller-coaster approach on constitutional reform with which we are confronted: devolution, the Human Rights Bill, Lords reform, elected mayors, change in the voting system, and all that. If I had to choose between the two approaches, I would back the approach of the Modernisation Committee.
Some of the practical results of the Committee's work already benefit the House: the revised, user-friendly Order Paper; the more comfortable voting arrangements in the Lobbies; the programming of Bills by agreement, with proper respect for Bills of first-class constitutional importance; and more extensive use of pre-legislative scrutiny through a variety of means, some of which the Leader of the House mentioned. There is also clearer information about proposed legislation. The Committee already has a lot of good work to its credit.
All Governments have occasionally found it necessary to make changes to the workings of the House. Our approach to reform should be guided by some principles. We should support sensible evolutionary reform, provided that it does not weaken the power of Parliament or the chain of accountability that links the elector and his or her elected representative and the ability to question and hold in check the Executive. It must not weaken, but enhance, the esteem in which the House is held and achieve practical improvement in the task of the House to scrutinise and make laws. It must help us to communicate with the nation and provide a focus for the concerns of the nation. As Bagehot said, it must allow Parliamentto be the cockpit of the whole life of English politics which is action and reaction between the Ministry and the Parliament.I turn briefly—I accept the representations about short speeches—to the third report, I acknowledge that there is a tension between the sessional cut-off and the proposals for better scrutiny of Bills. I also accept that it is right to resolve it by easing the sessional cut-off in certain circumstances. To use another analogy, we are extending the runway way for worthier, slower-moving Bills so that they can achieve take-off and not abort. I welcome the safeguards that the Leader of the House mentioned in her opening remarks. It is sensible for the usual channels to determine eligibility, and to have an experimental period before finalising procedure.
560 On the fourth report, I was struck by a sentence in paragraph 7, which states:Ultimately it will be for the authority of the Chair, and the confidence which every Member should have in any Speaker, rather than the changes of procedure and practice which we are proposing, which will determine the regard in which the House is held and the effectiveness of its proceedings.There is much common sense in that. Anyone who has played football knows that it is not what the rules say, but what the referee decides, that is often crucial in determining a result.
I accept the recommendations on short speeches. I looked up the last Opposition Supply day in which I took part, about two weeks ago. I spoke for 18 minutes, the Secretary of State, who followed me, for twice as long; so I hope that I have a good record in that respect. I accept that it is sensible to have injury time for interventions. I have noticed a tendency for Members who think that they may not get called, or who may not want to stay for the whole debate, to intervene in early speeches. I do not think that that is as yet a gross abuse but it is something to watch. It shows that if one has to, one can condense a speech into an intervention.
§ Sir George Young
I detect that the dinner hour is almost upon us. I suspect that my hon. Friend may have other engagements.
§ Mr. Soames
Unfortunately, I have to go out to dinner and will miss the rose of my right hon. Friend's excellent, brief speech. If carried to a ridiculous length, interventions of the sort that he described would be vexatious and no doubt Madam Speaker would be swift to stamp on them. Nevertheless, does he agree that, given Back Benchers' opportunities to speak and the fact that many of them wish only to make one or two important points in an early speech because of other obligations, such interventions are not vexatious, provided that they are not abused?
§ Sir George Young
A sense of balance is crucial. I remember sitting on the Back Benches, having prepared a speech and hoping to be called towards the end, seeing the clock tick as the Minister gave way to a succession of Back Benchers who then removed themselves. Often the chap who sits patiently on the Back Benches with some considered remarks does not get called because the Minister has given way too often to people with other commitments. It is not an abuse; it is something to watch.
I agree that it is sensible to give the Speaker discretion on time. Although I may be a sufferer, I can live with the proposed changes to the rights of Privy Councillors. I note the determined fight by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) to preserve them.
I paused at the proposals for the opera hat, but I believe that the Committee is right. We should now put on the black cap for the top hat. I have never used it, but I agree that the advent of television has probably brought that harmless, indeed rather utilitarian, device to an end. It sits uneasily with a modern legislature. However, someone conventionally dressed with a top hat on does not look much more unusual than people wearing some of the other 561 costumes worn by Members or Officers in other parts of the building from time to time. I notice the excellent suggestion to privatise the hat once it is redundant. The proceeds will be used for charitable purposes, but, under the definitions that the Treasury uses, it will be privatised.
I applaud the work of the Modernisation Committee. I look forward to playing a part in it and I agree with the proposals before the House. The Opposition support the measures commended by the Committee and we shall continue to take a constructive approach toward its work to make the House as effective as possible, but I have to add a note of caution: however well the Committee does its work, its reforms will be swamped if we get too many ill-considered, hasty, piecemeal constitutional measures that threaten the precious chain of democratic accountability which has made our parliamentary democracy the envy of the world and which the Opposition will fight to the last to preserve. With that endorsement, I commend the measures to the House.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
I shall take only a few minutes. The recommendations are to be welcomed. At first, I was naturally a little concerned about some of the possibilities that might ensue, bearing in mind that we have had some rather dramatic changes made to the way in which the House of Commons conducts its business over the past 20-odd years, especially in the 10 to 12 years before Labour assumed office. I thought that that trend would continue, but it has not.
The arrangements in respect of short speeches are sound. Privy Councillors have been mentioned for the first time with a view to telling them that, except on rare occasions when they have a special interest in the subject, they will be treated like anybody else; that is a sound suggestion and I am certain that Madam Speaker will ensure that it is carried out. The ideas relating to interventions are pretty good, because they would allow people to make short interventions, although I note that, if a long answer is given to an intervention, that time will be lost. Hon. Members who allow interventions should be aware that they will get only half the time back.
I have to confess that I could not put on the top hat. Nearly every time there was an argument during a Division in the past 18 years, I wanted to raise a point of order, as hon. Members probably realise, but I could not bring myself to wear the top hat. I used to throw it to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) or anyone else and then tell them what to say—tell them to use my point of order. After the cameras came on the scene, I was even more determined to stay as far away from the top hat as possible, so I am pleased to see the back of it now.
I believe in some traditions—even though I want to get rid of the House of Lords, I want to save the building, because it was built by workers and is a wonderful place. Some traditions serve a useful purpose, but, for the life of me, I could not see why we needed the top hat. I did not know what would be done to replace it, but I now realise that we are to go to the second Bench back, as close to the Speaker as possible, so as to stand out while putting our points of order. I suppose that that is marginally better than standing on the Table; it is certain that far more people would see any hon. Member who did that, but my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish would have a job to climb up, as would many other hon. Members.
562 What worried me most was the fact that "I spy strangers" might be abolished. I see that the Committee has come up with a fairly reasonable proposal to replace it. If I have read it correctly, the only difference is that we will not be calling for the Gallery to be cleared—although I have to say that, in the 28 years I have been a Member of Parliament, I have never seen the Gallery cleared. Those of us who call "I spy strangers" do so for another purpose—especially in the past 18 years. I should not reveal this, but we want to test whether the Government have their troops here at quarter to 10 on a Friday morning, which is not a bad idea when the streets have not been properly aired.
I well remember one famous occasion, which others will recall, when we were desperately trying to get the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill through. We had been trying for years and, one Friday, it was No. 4 on the agenda. No. 4 is not good news and the first item had been tied up by loads of amendments from Tory Back Benchers to ensure that we would never reach the disability Bill. At about quarter to 10 in the morning, I came in and shouted "I spy strangers" and, sure enough, the Tory Government had only 27 Members here. That was great news—the first business fell.
I caught my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) in a moment when he did not fully understand what was going on and said, "Ken, pull yours off." He had a few minutes on his debate and then pulled his off—that was two down, with only one more to go. I spotted the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who is now second-in-command on these procedural matters, and I said, "You've got the third Bill—are you in favour of the disability Bill?" He was—in fact, he was one of the few Tories who had voted with us—so he was in a bind. He pulled his Bill off and, within a few minutes, we had got the disability Bill on the agenda. Mr. Scott had to hotfoot it here from Chelsea and speak on behalf of the Government against the Bill.
We did not quite win, but we came close. That indicates that what we did was not an abuse, but a sensible use of "I spy strangers". It enabled us to elevate a part of our business that should have ranked much higher than some of the others ahead of it, but had been pushed to the back, mainly because it was the disability Bill. I am pleased that a way has been found to ensure that the principle of "I spy strangers" will continue. I heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) speak earlier about the old quorum rules. Calling for a quorum would have been a great device for people like me, but that mechanism has gone and I do not think that it will ever return.
All in all, it is not a bad package. I have to tell any hon. Member from either side of the House who tries to claim that it is an attack on parliamentary democracy that it ranks very low when compared with all those orders that were shunted upstairs, which we used to debate until two or three o'clock every morning—an hour and a half for each, after my then hon. Friend Bob Cryer and I had insisted that they be taken separately, because we were masochists and, more important, because it would keep the Government Members up. The Opposition have only limited power and doing that is one of the ways to make an impact on the Government.
The Tory Government of yesteryear decided to get rid of all those opportunities to filibuster—I should not say filibuster—all those opportunities to harry the 563 Government, and they sent all those matters upstairs. I warned them at the time, saying, "Do it and you will regret it when Labour gets into power," to which they responded, not believing that it would ever happen, "When Labour gets into power?" Even after black Wednesday, they still did not believe that that would ever happen, but I continued to warn them that it would and now they are faced with it.
The package is okay—I give it a few marks out of ten. I hope that it gets through tonight and that we are able to make these minor changes and ensure that our wonderful parliamentary democracy continues—at least in this place, where we are all accountable to our constituents. Then, we can move on to that other place and make sure that it is made democratic as well.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
It is always difficult to follow the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—or the hon. Member for masochism, whichever he prefers. It will be even more difficult this evening, because I propose to be slightly more radical than he was.
Before I do so, I join the Leader of the House in welcoming the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) to his new role, although later in my speech I shall dissent slightly from one of the points that he made. I am sure that he will bring to the Modernisation Committee an openness of mind and a feel for the way in which the House of Commons works that will be extremely helpful.
I also pay tribute to the Leader of the House as Chair of the Modernisation Committee. Her patience is legendary, although on occasion she must have wished that we in the Committee had set a time limit on speeches, which we had not, and others might have shared that view. It has to be said that the Committee is moving painfully slowly, because it is the intention of all members of the Committee, particularly the Chair, to try to reach agreement by consensus. What is remarkable about the number of Divisions that took place on one of the reports is that it showed how exceptional it was that one of our members was unable to join that consensus; on every other occasion, we have been completely united.
I want to discuss the motivation for this exercise, because it is easy to get so stuck on the details of reports that we forget the motivation. As it is now a full year since the Committee was set up, I want to return to the core issues and the rationale behind it. There are three core elements: the scrutiny of legislation; the accountability of the Executive, to which the hon. Member for Bolsover rightly referred, and the improvement of the way in which we represent our constituents. All the recommendations that we make to the House—the rather slim ones that we are discussing tonight, the more substantial ones that we discussed last summer and future proposals—have to be tested against those three propositions. If we are not making progress on those three broad points, we must ask ourselves whether the exercise is worth while.
In response to the work that we have done so far, Members on both sides of the House have said to me, "It is going well. It is going in the right direction, but it is disappointing that you are not making more progress." The hon. Member for Bolsover would agree with me on that.
564 First, on scrutiny of legislation, modest improvements will result from the carry-over provisions, but we have not yet fully developed the options put before the House—and agreed by the House—in our first report. That set out the options that are already available to us to improve the scrutiny of legislation, but the Government have been unable, or have not seen fit, to take up some of the more imaginative ways in which we can tackle that problem.
If the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire thinks that the way in which we have been dealing with the constitutional Bills—by taking every single sentence, clause, full stop and comma on the Floor of the House—is the envy of the world, he is living in cloud cuckoo land. Most Members of the House know that taking the whole Committee stage of such legislation on the Floor of the House is plain barmy. It has resulted in many of the important parts of that legislation not receiving the attention that they should have received and which was precisely one of the objectives that we stated in our first report.
It is now critical that we examine and take advantage of the recent experience on the Scotland Bill, the Government of Wales Bill and the Human Rights Bill. We must recognise that the proper way to proceed on Bills of such complexity is to consider the principles on the Floor of the House, as we do with the Finance Bill and as we did with the Sunday Trading Act 1994 and, I believe, a local government Bill. Once all hon. Members have had a full opportunity—a much greater opportunity than they have had in the proceedings on those constitutional Bills—to assess the priorities and principles of the legislation, the scrutiny of the detail is much better undertaken in Committee.
Even the modest proposals for carry-over will not extend the time allowed for legislation in future Sessions to the extent that we will be able to give Bills more time on the Floor of the House. Indeed, the past year has been exceptional in that the parliamentary year has been extended, and unless something odd occurs, that will not happen again in the near future. The House must examine—I hope that, through the usual channels, this will be arranged rapidly—our recent experience and reconsider the recommendations in the first report of the Modernisation Committee.
On the accountability of the Executive, great strides have been made in trying to examine new ways in which we can operate in the House. When I first came to the House in 1974, Select Committees did not exist. Their advent introduced a new way of operating. It was a new experience for Members to sit together and interrogate and challenge representatives of the Executive. That still does not happen in this particular part of the building, but it happens upstairs, and we are getting better and better at it. Surely it is critical that we provide more, rather than fewer, opportunities for that to happen. We must find ways of debating the results of Select Committee inquiries.
The hon. member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) is not here, but if we were to apply the Mackinlay test, as defined yesterday at Prime Minister's questions, to what happens in Select Committees, we would find that most 565 hon. Members would pass with flying colours. However, the same Members in the Chamber at Prime Minister's questions all too often askfawning, obsequious, softball, well-rehearsed and planted questions".—[Official Report, 3 June 1998; Vol. 313, c. 358.]That does not happen in Select Committees, where there is true accountability of the Executive.
I hope that the implications of transferring more business out of the Chamber, and making sure that more work is done in that environment, will be examined with reference to the assessment of the parliamentary year, the parliamentary day and the parliamentary hours. Many Members on both sides of the House are disappointed that after 12 months, the Modernisation Committee has not reached even tentative conclusions on those issues. Once we take more business away from the Floor of the House, we can tackle the problem of our hours, days and years. We can achieve that by liberalising our attitudes and responses to the opportunities to call the Executive to account.
It is true—I am sure that the Leader of the House will want to make this point later—that the Committee is beginning to have very imaginative ideas about that. As a member of the Committee, reflecting the views of many other hon. Members, I hope that we will now get a move on. There is a great deal of work to be done in this respect and I believe it to be extremely important.
On representation of our constituents, I do not find that people come to my advice surgery saying that they are worried about the top hat or the garb worn by the Speaker, the Clerks or the Serjeant at Arms. Hon. Members may recall that on Monday, in a debate on electoral reform, Conservative Members repeatedly asked whether that subject was constantly mentioned in our mailbags or advice surgeries. The answer is no, but it is equally true that people do not come to our advice surgeries saying, "Whatever you do, maintain the first-past-the-post system." If that is to be the litmus test of what people are worried about, we should consider the fact that members of the public are fed up to the teeth with the confrontational image that they have of us.
On Monday, an NOP poll demonstrated that 57 per cent. of the electorate strongly agree that:Politicians spend too much time bickering and don't work together.A further 27 per cent. agree, less strongly. My maths is not very good, but that adds up to—
§ Mr. Tyler
I am grateful to my more numerate hon. Friend. Eighty-four per cent. of the electorate agree with that proposition. That is a real test, rather than the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) wondering why people do not come to his surgery. Eight-four per cent. of the electorate believe that we are too confrontational. Clearly, we have to find ways to achieve more consensus in the House, and more transparency.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
Frankly, that is the biggest load of rubbish that I have ever heard in my life. It is important that we stop talking too much arrant nonsense. It is difficult for many of our constituents these days to know 566 what is being discussed in the House of Commons. Those who complain most about the noise at Question Time, are those who listen avidly to it and who complained bitterly about the loss of Question Time on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
§ Mr. Tyler
The hon. Lady is making my point for me. If the electorate concentrate only on the charade or cabaret show of that one half-hour in the week, like the American viewers of that extraordinary late-night programme that shows it, that is exactly the reaction that we will get. However, the hon. Lady says, and she is right, that the House of Commons should be more elector-friendly and more transparent. I agree, and many of the recommendations in our latest report on the conduct in the Chamber should address that.
It is not only a matter of courtesy. Of course, it is more helpful if we are courteous to each other. However. the whole point of being in the House to hear people speak before or after us is that there is a better chance of a real debate. It is more likely that there will be a proper dialogue across the House. If one walks in, makes one's set prepared speech and then goes out to dinner, it is unlikely that one will hear how other hon. Members respond to that speech or how the Leader of the House or the Minister replies to the whole debate.
It is the essence of a debate that one does not pop in and out of it—one is part of a continuum. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who has an excellent reputation for taking part in debates in that sense—being here, listening and taking part—is a prime example of a real parliamentarian. To my mind, the type of parliamentarian who pops in at Prime Minister's questions, makes a funny intervention and departs is not serving his or her constituents well.
That is precisely why the report—which may appear to be rather peripheral—about the conduct of debate is extremely important. If we cannot debate issues in a way that develops a result—a continuum, a conclusion and, often, a consensus—we are not a debating chamber but a forum for a slanging match: a cockpit in which people throw alternative views at one another.
On the timing of speeches—[Interruption.] Some hon. Members are looking at me askance—
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
The hon. Gentleman has already taken three minutes longer than my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young).
§ Mr. Tyler
The hon. Gentleman says that I have been too long. I also have served on the Committee for a year, and I hope that it may help the House if I explain why the Committee needs a kick up the backside to speed up its conclusions.
Timing of speeches matters. I believe that it is important that we allow latitude for injury time. I make one plea, however, on behalf of all Back Benchers, to all three Front-Bench teams. It will not be enough to have a time limit on Back-Benchers' speeches if Front Benchers are not less self-indulgent. Recently—I know that you are well aware of the fact, Madam Speaker—there have been occasions, in a one-and-a-half-hour or three-hour debate, when time for Back-Bench speeches has been squeezed so mercilessly that a proper Back-Bench view has not been 567 expressed. Fortunately, tonight we started earlier than anticipated, so there will be plenty of time for Back-Bench views.
This sequence of reports is helpful. The latest—published today—on electronic voting, although, on the face of it, no great step forward, is useful and expresses the views of the House.
However, we make a ludicrous mistake if we allow ourselves to think that removing the top hat, or enabling Members to get through the Lobbies slightly quicker, is all that we need do to modernise this place. The electorate do not believe that, and we shall be answerable to them if we do not take this real opportunity to take the House of Commons into the 21st century.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I warmly welcome most of the recommendations in the reports, although they are slightly timid.
I very much welcome the idea that non-controversial Bills may be carried over from one Session to the next. However, I warn the Leader of the House that there was a great abuse when some private Bills went on from Session to Session. If this is to happen, there must be agreement that the Bill is non-controversial, and at the start of its passage an announcement should be made that it is intended that the Bill should take six months to pass through the House and that it will be three months in one Session and three months in the next—especially so that people outside the House know the time scale envisaged. It should be planned, not accidental.
§ Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
I appreciate my hon. Friend's argument, because many hon. Members have asked members of the Modernisation Committee when we shall get round to timetabling our hours in the House more sensibly, and the answer has been, "When we have an opportunity to timetable and programme more of the legislation that we have a responsibility to pass, at its start." Does he agree that proposals such as those that he is making must be accompanied by a more structured programming and timetabling of all our work in the House?
§ Mr. Bennett
I am reluctant to go too far down the line of structuring it. It is important that people outside the House know exactly when we aim to finish the legislative process, but it is also important that the Opposition should have flexibility to argue about how time is allocated within that span; taking that away would be to deny the Opposition a great deal.
Better behaviour in the Chamber is important. I hope that, if the motion is carried tonight, you, Madam Speaker, will consider ways in which to bring that to the attention of a wide audience and to ensure that Members comply, so that they need not be reprimanded.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) urged that very short speeches be made from the Front Benches also. I am not entirely sympathetic to that view, especially when we are debating orders. When a Minister is dealing with an order in a short time, it can be far better for him or her to take half a dozen interventions than to say, "I have only 10 minutes, so I shall just gabble out 568 my notes," preventing any exchange of views across the Chamber. Although, on the whole, Ministers should try to make short speeches, we should not place too much pressure on them and give them an excuse not to answer to the House.
I realise why motion No. 5 says,the Speaker may disregard the time taken by interventionswhen calculating the time for which a Member has spoken, but I hope, Madam Speaker, that you will err towards "shall" rather than "may" more often than not.
To help Members, we resisted for a long time having the electronic clocks above us. When speeches are limited to 10 minutes, it might be easier if part of the clock counted down to give Members an idea of how long they had spoken. Often, when I believe I have been on my feet for three minutes or less, it comes as a terrible shock to see the two pips going on the clock—and the next minute the Chair cuts me off. I realise, however, that in bringing the electronic age into the House, we must move fairly slowly.
I am grateful that the process of asking strangers to withdraw has been modified. I am also very pleased to see the hat go. I am aware of the force of the argument that it should be given to charity, but I believe that the best way for the House to send it off would be for us to hold a Division on one of these motions tonight and get my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to wear the hat to finish it off. That would be a really appropriate way for it to go. If my hon. Friend does not put it on, those outside who manipulate photographs will be tempted to produce covers for publications showing my hon. Friend wearing it. I therefore ask him: why not take up the challenge tonight? I have never known my hon. Friend to be a coward in any issue, so how about it?
The hat has subjected the House to much ridicule, but the new procedure will be fairly difficult to operate. Many points of order during Divisions concern delay in the Lobbies—in which, on occasion, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover and I, and others, have been involved. Such matters need not be raised as a point of order. Action could be taken rapidly, given all the electrical devices that the Clerks can —have
§ Mr. Bennett
If my hon. Friend wants to get that remark on to the record, it must be an intervention—or at least the Member who has the Floor must repeat it—but no doubt her cattle prods are there, although someone in the Hansard box is now worrying who to attribute the remark to. I was not, in fact, after cattle prods; I was after a bit more vigour when it becomes obvious that hon. Members are delaying in the Lobbies.
My amendment does not meet with favour with a huge number of hon. Members, but I must say, Madam Speaker, that you are one of the fortunate ones. You have chosen what to wear when you are in the Chair. Most others who have to wear special dress in the Chamber have not had the opportunity to choose what to wear.
In my opinion, the Chair is distinguished by the person who occupies it, not by their mode of dress. Matters such as the Committee stage of the Finance Bill are sometimes dealt with on the Floor of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has 569 taken the Chair when the House is in Committee; she did not need to wear anything special to be a very distinguished Chair.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I shall be extremely ungracious and disagree with my hon. Friend. Does he not realise that the really influential people in this place are the Clerks? They are the ones who run the House—whatever we like to think—under Madam Speaker's eagle eye. Our only chance of getting back at them is to force them to wear both gowns and wigs, particularly during the summer. I hope that my hon. Friend will not lightly abandon that useful practice.
§ Mr. Bennett
I appreciate my hon. Friend's point, but I do not think that the Clerks need to wear wigs and gowns. Perhaps there was a time when less distinguished people arrived in that position, but the recruitment of Clerks has changed in recent years and the people who occupy those chairs now were chosen on merit and do not need to wear a wig to cover any lack of skill.
As for the Serjeant at Arms, I have never seen the Serjeant's dress sword used to any advantage, but I have seen more than one Serjeant looking extremely ungallant as he avoided tripping over it. I wonder whether it is really useful. I hope that the Modernisation Committee might consider that we do not need fancy dress in order to distinguish people's roles, which can be best distinguished by where they sit and the way they behave rather than by the clothes they wear.
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)
I, too, must declare an interest in the debate inasmuch as I am a member of the Modernisation Committee. As my signature is appended to the reports, I am committed to them.
I must make an observation about Standing Orders. They are the basis upon which Madam Speaker governs the House, so any change to them is very serious and important. I shall address only one proposed change to the Standing Orders: short speeches. I am concerned about it—there is no point in my declaring otherwise. It is probably well known in the House that it was intended to reduce the duration of speeches to five minutes, but we compromised on eight minutes. I suggest that the House consider the matter carefully.
I noticed that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who is my colleague on the Modernisation Committee, began his speech at 27 minutes past the hour and finished at 41 minutes past the hour—he spoke for 14 minutes, taking one short intervention of less than a minute's duration. I do not criticise the hon. Gentleman; I simply observe that I am not sure whether he was making the case for short speeches. Let us reflect on that point.
It is important that we are able to express the passions that we feel as elected representatives, who are in this place on an equal franchise, about the great issues of the day. We can sometimes do that by simply shaking our fists at the Government Front Bench; we sometimes make subtle and argued speeches. Each hon. Member pursues his or her argument in a particular way. We are not all gifted with the ability to make a deft little speech, but we 570 can carefully construct and assemble an argument. Can we discharge that function honourably if we are limited to eight minutes on great occasions?
In truth, we often afford too little time to the great speeches and occasions of the day. I was happy to note that the Second Readings of the Government of Wales and Scotland Bills lasted for two days. In the late 1940s, Second Readings lasted for two or three days when radical changes were being proposed. My point is that we compress a great deal and I wonder whether that serves the interests of Back Benchers. Do we have an adequate opportunity to try to unpick the Government's arguments and authority? It is a testing process. The hon. Member for Cornwall, North took 14 minutes—I do not think that he deliberately went out of his way to be verbose—to give a perfectly reasonable summary of the Committee's report. That is my concern about this proposal. I shall try to keep within my eight minutes.
Half of the assemblies of the world have introduced short speeches, which have become a succession of soundbites, trivialisations and armies marching against each other. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes) shakes her head: I accept that we have different views.
§ Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston)
I shook my head because I believe that there is another argument that the hon. Gentleman should, perhaps, accept—or at least consider. My experience of this place is not long, but I have long experience in politics and in academia. I have found that the quality of a speech is often in inverse proportion to its length. It may assist the quality of debate if hon. Members have to put their points succinctly and clearly. Short speeches may benefit the House in terms of the quality of speeches and of debate by enabling more hon. Members to express their views. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
§ Mr. Shepherd
I accept that every hon. Member makes a speech in the way that he or she is best able. I reflect only upon the fact that this is a representative House: some people are naturally witty and some approach subjects sideways. Our intention is to try to influence argument and debate. We have all been tutored that the shorter and more condensed the speech, the better it is, but that is not always true.
§ Mr. Tyler
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is a matter of balance? If hon. Members are long winded—and some are—it inevitably means that other hon. Members will not have an opportunity even to express their views succinctly, as they will be excluded completely from the debate. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is a matter of balance and that, in some circumstances, the Speaker should have the discretion to limit debate? That is all we ask.
§ Mr. Shepherd
Of course I accept that it is a matter of balance; I thought that 10 minutes was a reasonable expression of that balance. That is why I am concerned about this change to Standing Orders—that is all. I can see that hon. Members accept that it is appropriate to truncate speeches and that they believe that the best speeches are those that are refined and reduced to eight minutes' duration. I simply state that we are elected—regardless of 571 our inadequacies—to represent our constituents, to express their views and to put our arguments to the best of our ability.
I have watched the House narrow its focus more and more. In my career in Parliament, I have noticed that Privy Councillors usually rise to speak first in debates. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) spoke for 12 minutes in a very limited debate on the West Lothian question. Do we really expect him to compress his speech to eight minutes? Should a former Foreign Secretary be limited to speaking for only eight minutes on the great issues of the day? Under this rule, Privy Councillors will rush to speak first. We often seek the reflections and the wisdom of people who have experience in public life. They should not always speak first in debate, but should hear the range of arguments and perhaps respond at 8 pm—we do not all rush off to dinner.
I recall when the former Prime Minister Lord Callaghan used to sit in this Chamber and I remember his speeches well. It was said that he took a rather avuncular approach to issues. He would say, "You propose this, but we should consider that," and he would list certain problems and then wish us well. If we had listened more closely to his experience, we would have been saved some grief.
If Privy Councillors rush to speak first—and speak for an unlimited time—that will concentrate debate even more. My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), a former Prime Minister, was caught unawares by the 10-minute rule and his speech was cut off. In our glad rush to try to modernise and curtail the procedures of this place, we may lose the very essence of this representative institution. We must try to express, in however humble a fashion and as appropriately as we can—we are not all PhDs or clever computer people—the views of a broad range of the British people. In the way in which we express our views, we try best to represent them. The curtailment of speeches is an extremely serious proposal.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
I occasionally think that I was extremely lucky to be elected to the House when I was. I was not particularly fashionable and I was certainly not a PhD—I was one of those appalling people who was a housewife.
I am devastated when I hear Members speak about the need to modernise, by which they mean to timetable and to reorganise the House of Commons. When I first came here, there were no Select Committees. Dick Crossman created them. It was so long ago that I can afford to say that because the Labour members of those Select Committees were so independent minded, did so much good work and expressed themselves so forcefully, there was a long debate in the Labour Cabinet about how they should be encouraged to be quiet.
I was happy to take part in that debate. Many of us said that it would be disastrous if the Select Committees were curtailed in any way and they therefore continued for a considerable time. They were closed down and later reopened because the Members of those Parliaments understood that individual members of Select Committees and Members of the House have the right to try to hold the Executive to account and to ask awkward questions, even of their own Government.
572 This is rather an unfashionable view, but we fail disastrously in the House if we do not understand that we as individual Members have a responsibility not only to our constituents, but to a number of basic principles, one of which concerns the desire of the people of the United Kingdom to be governed by responsible and open government that is accountable at every level.
I disagree with much in the Modernisation Committee's reports, but these are not the most difficult reports in the series. I caution my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench. I have grave reservations about carrying over Bills. I understand why it is being proposed. It has been argued that it will apply only to non-controversial Bills and will be done by agreement. All the arguments are eminently reasonable, but when I was in the European Parliament for four and a half years, it became clear to me that if a legislature does not have a cut-off point and does not know how to get rid of legislation that will never progress and is, and never will be, agreed, it gets into an extremely dangerous and unacceptable situation.
I say to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that if a limited measure is proposed, I hope that in two or three years' time people will not say that it has been convenient for the Government and the realm should be extended. It is sometimes assumed that we shall have Labour Governments in perpetuity. That may be the case, but we should never alter the rules of the House on that assumption. That would be extremely dangerous.
It is important to consider matters other than those that gain extensive coverage in the newspapers, such as wearing a top hat. I have worn the top hat. My ego must be very large; I never felt in any way diminished by it. If I want to raise a point of order during a Division it is because it is important and what I wear in those circumstances is not important to me. What is important is the effect that my raising the point of order has on the procedures of the House.
We should consider seriously the implications of proposals such as shortening speeches and their impact on our procedure. Procedure is the means by which one controls any organisation. That is the lesson taught to anyone in politics; learn the standing orders and how the procedure works, and anyone who wants to wreck it has all that machinery at their disposal. Those who do not do their homework will never be able to control what happens in any organisation.
We have heard tonight that if we had short speeches more people would be able to get in and more points would be made. More points might be made, but would more individual arguments be advanced that were based on a fairly sound evolution of ideas? There are 655 Members in this place and not all of them will get into every debate. I have sat through many debates as a Back Bencher, listening to many speeches and not being called, but I regarded that as the price that I had paid for being elected to a legislature that gives people the right to express their own opinions.
I have sat through speeches of—dare I say it—old Labour Members. We had a miner who, for many years, made one speech a year at considerable length. Now, of course, he would not be selected, but if he had been he would not be allowed to go on for so long because the points that he made were not made in a structured, disciplined and organised way that we are told is essential 573 to the House of Commons these days. He was saying what he believed and he was saying it in the way that he best understood.
Although I shall not vote against the recommendations tonight, I worry about the way that we are going. There are matters that the House of Commons should seriously debate. For example, we should examine the work in America of the general accounting office. It does a great deal of detailed work for the Senate and for Congress, makes it available to Members as legislation is going through, is independent of the Government and is responsible to the legislature. It enables individual Members to understand the full implications of the legislation that is being discussed.
We have nothing like that; nor are we suggesting that we should have. Many of us rely on the good efforts of a superb Library, but if we had other sources answerable not to the Government but to the House of Commons, many Back Benchers would be much better informed and would be able to make more vital points.
I was told recently that hon. Members who came in at the last election had entirely different views and wanted the whole place redone and everything changed, and that there were some hon. Members who were an overlap. I have been called many things in my time, but that was the first time I have been called an overlap. Of course, overlaps were of no importance.
This little overlap thinks that this place is important—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—and that the House of Commons is getting itself into a potentially dangerous situation. We are curtailing speeches, we are seeking to timetable every Bill and we are seeking to discipline the development of individual pieces of legislation. All that carries with it real dangers, although it is not fashionable to say so. It is true that when Lord Palmerston had nothing much to say he made a speech of four and a half hours. We do not do that these days.
Modernisation is useful only if it enables our constituents to know what legislation we are considering, what implications and sanctions go with it and whether modernisation gives them the right at an early enough stage to object to any aspect of legislation that affects their lives. Those who think that that can be dealt with by timetabling show an appalling ignorance that will cost us all dear.
§ 8.8 pm
§ Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)
In the spirit of the debate, I start by apologising for missing the first two or three minutes of the opening speech. I was caught by surprise that the business reached the Floor of the House so early.
The recommendations in the two reports are sensible. I shall deal not with those with which I agree entirely, but with those where I think that the Committee might have gone further or should reconsider in future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said that we should have nothing to do with the recommendations on carry-over. I think that those recommendations constitute one of the more important ways in which we can improve our proceedings. Let us look at the way in which legislation is currently dealt with. A Bill is given a Second Reading, a Committee stage, a Report stage and a Third Reading. The time- 574 consuming stage, certainly with major legislation, is the Committee stage, whether it takes place on the Floor of the House or in a Standing Committee. That is when the delays happen.
We have to fit the Committee stage into a parliamentary year which—unless there is a general election—features the Queen's Speech in November, followed by five or six weeks of business before the Christmas recess. Virtually no Standing Committees get going in that period. All the Standing Committees must then finish by the end of June or the beginning of July if we are to complete our business before the end of the Session. Effectively, what we do is compress the work of our Standing Committees into, at the most, seven months of the year, and that causes problems—problems of timetabling, for instance. When all the Committee and Report stages are happening at once, representatives of minority parties—indeed, Members in general—may not be available. The same person may be expected to deal with two or three Standing Committees at the same time.
I understand why some people want us to approach the proposals cautiously. I understand why they do not want things to go too far, and think that we should see how they develop in the context of non-controversial legislation. However, I also think that it is possible to exaggerate the amount that Oppositions are able to do. I have been told time and again that delay is the weapon that Oppositions have, and that, of course, is true: Oppositions depend on being able to delay and make themselves awkward. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to think of any legislation that has failed to be passed as a result of such delay.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I can give a classic example. The Chairman of the Liaison Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon)—who was present earlier—and Lord Barnett alone managed to stymie the reorganisation of the House of Lords, for extremely good reasons.
§ Mr. Gerrard
I accept that it has happened from time to time, but I think that it is the exception rather than the rule. In any event, what is proposed would not affect legislation of that kind, which is plainly controversial.
I am strongly in favour of pre-legislative scrutiny, but if we are to have special Standing Committees and the like, there must be no whipping. If I am told that it will cause a problem if I, as a member of such a Committee, start asking the Minister awkward questions, the value of pre-legislative scrutiny will disappear. If we graft pre-legislative scrutiny on to the present timetables, we may end up with some difficulties, but that will not necessarily mean that progress on Bills will take longer. Sensible scrutiny might allow us to rid ourselves of what often strikes me as clutter in Standing Committees. I do not know how many times I have heard Committee members say, "This is a probing amendment". What they mean is, "I do not know what this part of the legislation will do, and I want to find out". An hour or two—sometimes three hours—of debate then follows.
§ Mr. Shepherd
The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind the fact that the Labour Opposition's stance on the Maastricht treaty was predicated on probing amendments, which are an important instrument. At that time, Opposition Members always said that theirs were probing 575 amendments, although in total they would have deleted nearly all the legislation. The current Prime Minister was expert at that when he was shadow Home Secretary.
§ Mr. Gerrard
There is a difference between what are clearly intended to be wrecking amendments, and amendments tabled in Standing Committees by someone who genuinely does not understand the legislation and is trying to establish what it means. There must be better ways of doing that. It should be out of the way in the pre-legislation stage: at that stage, everyone ought to understand precisely what a Bill is about, how it works and why. If that could be done, it might then be possible to compress the time taken by Standing Committees, and to avoid some of what often strikes me as pointless debate.
I was interested by what the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said about conduct in the Chamber. I agreed with some of what he said about the time taken up by the Bills on Scotland and Wales and the way in which they were handled, but I was worried by his suggestion that we should move debate outside the Chamber. There are important roles for Select and Standing Committees, but I feel that we need more debate in the Chamber than we have now, rather than less.
When people outside say that they do not like the confrontational nature of debate in the Chamber, they often mean that they do not like the noise, the disturbance and what strikes them as the bad behaviour that go on here, especially at Question Time. I do not think that those people object to hon. Members expressing political views strongly, even when those views contradict each other directly. That is confrontation, but it is important, and I believe that it is what people want to hear. They do not want to hear a soggy consensus; they want to hear Members of Parliament express views in which they personally believe on matters on which they feel strongly and wish to comment, regardless of whether the Front Bench agrees.
Confrontation of that sort is very healthy. We should beware of saying that all we want is consensus. We want good, gentlemanly behaviour in debates, but that need not prevent people from disagreeing strongly with each other, and making it clear that they do. Short speeches should not necessarily prevent that.
In any event, what is proposed is not compulsory. There is no suggestion that debates must be time limited; it is left to Madam Speaker to decide when that is appropriate, and also to decide the appropriate limit, which may not always be 10 minutes. At present, certain hon. Members seem to think that the rules should not apply to them. Some of us become rather sick of sitting on the Back Benches waiting to speak, and then finding that it is 7 pm and the 10-minute rule applies, and then, perhaps, still not being called to speak, although another Member has indulged himself by speaking for 40 minutes at the beginning of the debate. I do not care who that Member is; I feel that it is an abuse deliberately and knowingly to prevent others from expressing their views. The suggestion in regard to interventions is obviously sensible: at present, when speeches are time limited, the speaker has no incentive to give way to either a friendly or a hostile intervention.
576 The public ought to understand what goes on in the Chamber, and I therefore consider the proposed changes to the "I spy strangers" rule worth while. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that Back Benchers need such a mechanism to try to prevent business being passed, but I understand that what is proposed would not render such a mechanism unavailable.
I hope that the Leader of the House and members of the Select Committee will continue to look at the procedures and perhaps some issues that have not yet been dealt with. We have had a report, which we are not debating tonight and perhaps will debate in due course, on voting procedures. One thing that seemed to be missing from the report was the question of voting arrangements for Members who are seriously ill.
That may not seem to matter much in this Parliament, where the Government have a large majority, but we all know that there have been times when ambulances have been in New Palace yard. That may happen again if there is a Government with a small majority, dependent on a few votes. The procedure of having very sick people brought into New Palace yard does not do the House any good. The time to look at that issue is now, when it does not matter in terms of affecting the Government—not when it could make the difference between a Government staying in office and losing office.
It is also tremendously important that the Modernisation Committee looks at the way in which private Members' Bills operate. At the moment, Bills with huge support can get nowhere and, at the same time, private Members' business that would be generally agreed disappears because time cannot be found for it. Therefore, I welcome what has been done so far in the Modernisation Committee. I hope that it will press on and start to look at some of the bigger issues that need to be addressed.
§ Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)
I wish to speak briefly as Chairman of the Select Committee on Information in response to the recommendations in the fourth report, which will be passed on to us, but, first, I express support for some of the comments by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) in respect of pre-legislative Committees. I must also apologise for being late, having come from a Standing Committee myself. The group for which I feel sorry is Government Back Benchers, who may have a deep interest in a matter, but who, because of the time constraints on Standing Committees, have no ability to speak on that issue.
I particularly praise Government Back Benchers on the Committee that has just finished considering the Data Protection Bill, who managed to make some important contributions—I see the Government Whip who was on that Committee, the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), smiling over there—and still completed the business according to the timetable. Pre-legislative Committees in particular would offer Government Back Benchers a chance, which they do not have, really to get stuck in.
The recommendations on the annunciators came before the Information Committee at its last meeting, at which point, in an effort not to be seen as one that always proposes ultra-high-tech, very expensive solutions, it came up with a low-tech, cheaper solution. That was to 577 put around the Benches the volumes that Hansard produces linking Members to their constituencies, so that Members could simply link a Member to his or her constituency, having read their name from the annunciators.
On further reading of the report, I understand that the recommendation is much stronger. It is essential that we put the constituency names up on the annunciators. Wishing to play our full part, we intend to move ahead with that. I can report that, today, I have been in discussion with a Committee Clerk about two particular areas. One is altering the current system—which is perhaps best described as a mid-tech, rather than a high or low-tech, solution—and seeing what changes we can make cheaply to that system.
Our suggestion, which will go back to our Committee, is that we have a trial session in the Chamber when the House is not sitting, whereby the annunciator operators try various solutions that are currently possible, and Members come in and try them out for such things as legibility, which is a crucial issue, given that the annunciators are so high up. I do not think that English Heritage would like us to move the annunciators into the Chamber itself, so we shall consider having an experiment within the current system to see how Members feel about it.
Looking further into the future, we are interested in having discussions as to how the annunciator system can be improved in general to make it a more high-tech solution and to get beyond the current limitations. Those limitations drove us to suggest the book alternative, in sheer frustration at the costs that were being presented to us for changing the current system to that required. I give the House notice of our full participation in the modernisation project, which is one that we, too, hold dear.
§ Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston)
I should like to comment on one or two of the contributions and points that have been made.
We have heard much in the press—indeed, it has been rehearsed tonight, in part, by my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich and Crewe—that the thrust for some of the modernisation reforms has arisen from the arrival in the House of many new Members. The perception is that they have a different agenda as to how the House procedures should work.
It is worth remembering that, before the Labour party came into government, Labour Members who were here identified—well before the arrival of new Labour Members—that it was important to include in our reforms the question of how far the House needed reforming. That commitment to the electorate in our manifesto arose from the experience of those Members who were here in opposition. Although new Members may endorse all or part of that agenda, it has arisen not from any particular agenda that we brought, but from the experience of Labour Members who have been in the House a long time in opposition.
§ Ms Hughes
I am happy to acknowledge that.
578 It is worth rehearsing as well the reasons why Members at that time thought that reform was important. One of the important reasons was the understanding that the public perception of politics, of politicians and of what was going on in the House had fallen into disrepute. They thought that something needed to be done to reinforce public confidence and esteem in the parliamentary process, and that we needed to consider how far procedures as they were then and, to some extent, still are now, needed to come into the modern world and to address the agenda for the next century, rather than previous centuries. I am certainly not one of those who wants to jettison tradition for its own sake—I do not feel that at all—but I support the process of examining how far we need to make measured and necessary changes to bring the parliamentary process into the modern age.
Again, the press has made much of the fact that that agenda might include such things as reform of working hours. That is important. I do not want to dissociate myself from those issues. As someone who has been a working parent for 20 years, juggling paid work, politics and parenting, I find that nothing irritates me more than being leashed to the voting Lobby until 11, 12 or later at night, when I could be doing more useful things.
However, as important as that is, I fully endorse the view that that is not the primary objective of the modernisation process. Its primary objectives must be to enhance the quality of legislation and the quality and effectiveness of procedures, and to maximise Members' expertise and the effective use of their time. Indeed, some Members have raised other issues that are also important, such as the ability to scrutinise legislation more effectively and to hold the Executive to account.
As a Back-Bench Labour Member, I fully support that. That is part of our role, but, although we are considering measures tonight that do not get to the heart of those important issues, what we are considering is a necessary prerequisite to get to that stage. To enhance our ability to scrutinise legislation and to hold the Executive to account, we need a cultural change in parts of this place—in this Chamber and in Standing Committees. I believe that Standing Committees have potential in that regard. It is far from being realised at present, certainly for some Government Back Benchers. However, although we are not there yet, what we are talking about tonight is, as I have said, an essential prerequisite for dealing with those further questions.
I have enormous respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich and Crewe, both for her expertise—
§ Ms Hughes
I beg my hon. Friend's pardon—it would indeed be enormously helpful if constituencies were shown on the annunciator. I thought that her constituency was Crewe and Nantwich, but was repeating what an experienced Member said earlier, obviously incorrectly.
I have enormous respect for the expertise of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and for her speech, and listened very seriously to the points that she made. I do not share her view on two points. First, I think that the quality of many speeches and debates will be improved if there is a focus, which is sometimes—when appropriate—provided by imposing a time limit.
579 Secondly, some hon. Members seem to have assumed that time limits will automatically result in whittled-down speeches. However, the report makes it clear that discretion will rest entirely with Madam Speaker, and that she will decide when time limits are necessary and what those time limits should be. I think that we can all have confidence that—in exercising her role in protecting hon. Members' right to participate in debates—she will allay those concerns. I therefore think that the amendment on short speeches would assist in improving the quality of our speeches and debates.
I should like to raise only one other issue—as I am keeping my speech short, in line with the general content of my speech. I believe that discipline and structure—words about which other hon. Members have expressed concern in this debate—can provide benefits if part of a framework, which is what a debate timetable can be. Over time, the benefits of a disciplined and structured approach can also be realised in the parliamentary process.
I hope that the Modernisation Committee will consider very soon how the parliamentary process, and hon. Members' involvement in it, can be enhanced in considering and extending the timetabling of parliamentary business—not to curtail or overly structure business, but to allow the creation of a framework for the parliamentary year that will enable both hon. Members and parties to make strategic decisions on the matters on which they want to concentrate their attention and activities, perhaps particularly when in opposition.
§ Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)
It is important that change should be incremental. As I am both a Conservative and a conservative, I think that it is a pity that we are making changes so early in a Parliament. Usually, there is a reason for things being the way they are. As our Parliament has been going for centuries, traditions have developed that are built around the rights of individual Members. One should therefore be very careful about changing too quickly what has gone before, as there may be a very good reason for it—although that reason may not be obvious to a new hon. Member, such as myself.
I am very pleased with the new format for the Order Paper. I must say that, when first elected, I was one of those who could not understand the Order Paper format. The key point is that change should be incremental.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) mentioned the confrontational atmosphere in the Chamber. I think that the House is sometimes at its best in such an atmosphere. In how many Chambers in the world is there real heat in debate? It is not so much what people say, but the expression on their face, what they are doing with their hands, or whether they are jumping from foot to foot.
I think that our system is very good. When mistakes are made, and when people are called to account our system, it is second to none in the world.
Our intervention system is also very good, and allows rather more spontaneous debates. On many occasions—particularly when Ministers are generous in giving way—it allows hon. Members to elicit more information and a fuller explanation of a clause or Bill, which is beneficial to all hon. Members, and sometimes saves not only speeches but time.
580 I agree with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) on speeches. Although limiting speeches seems to be a trend around the world, one of the few powers that we have as hon. Members is the ability to speak for our constituents and constituency. Although limits may not be so bad if there are 400 hon. Members of one party, many of whom can speak for eight or 10 minutes to make a point, we must have regard also to the hon. Members who belong to extremely small parties. At some point, they may want to have their say, and may need more than eight or 10 minutes to do so. The House may be 659 in number, but we must have regard to the ones and the twos, who have a perfect right to have their say and to make their representations. We should not think purely within the context of the major parties, because this is a Chamber for all.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) made a very important point on the annunciator, which I find very difficult to see up in the rafters. Unless one clocks the clock in the Chamber or is kicked by someone on the shins, one does not know when to stop speaking. Earlier this week, my speech was cut off when I was in full flight. One feels an idiot when such things happen, and it is difficult for the occupant of the Chair. It is also undignified.
We should save a lot of time if we could find a method of allowing hon. Members to see how long they have spoken, and of displaying both the name and the constituency of the hon. Member speaking. On many occasions, I have had to lunge across the Chamber to pick up "Dod" or "The Times Guide to the House of Commons" to try to find information on an hon. Member, which takes up a lot of time. Such a system would make debate swifter.
Our voting system—going through the Lobbies—is a terribly important practice. Today, hon. Members have better office accommodation than we have ever had. However, we are consequently spread out over a larger parliamentary estate. The only time in the day when one may see colleagues, and perhaps have the opportunity to see and speak for a few minutes to the leader or senior members of one's party, is in the Lobby.
§ Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)
Will the hon. Gentleman concede that the various options all proposed maintaining the Lobby system, and that the Committee recognised the value of the Lobby system and was not proposing any change to it?
§ Mr. Syms
I am not quite so sure about that. I think that some of the proposals could well have led to abolition of the Lobby system. I think that physically walking through the Lobby also imposes a very important discipline on hon. Members.
I hope that any change is incremental. We must all remember that today's majority may be tomorrow's minority, and have regard to the rights of individual Back Benchers. I was very impressed by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills—who, if there were to be a shop steward to protect the rights of hon. Members, would have a very good claim to the post.
§ Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)
I welcome the opportunity of being able to say a few words in this debate. It would be wrong for it to be dominated only by members of the Modernisation Committee, but, as our Committee Chairman, the Leader of the House, is a member of the Cabinet, it is important to have one speech on the reports from a Committee member who is also a Government Back Bencher. The House should realise that the Committee is not being cautious in its work. We have had to deal with many issues simply to lay a foundation for the future.
As one or two hon. Members have said in the debate, the Committee Chairman has done an excellent job in trying to build consensus in laying that foundation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes) said, the most important task for the Committee is not to make change for the sake of change, but to improve how the House works—not only for the benefit of hon. Members, but to ensure that we legislate better, and scrutinise legislation better. That objective has been foremost in the mind of the Committee Chairman, who has also kept it foremost in the thoughts of Committee members.
On the Committee's third report, on carry-over legislation, I take a different view from that of some other hon. Members. I believe that, at a general election, we elect a Government to govern for five years. The Government should have not only a five-year programme but the ability to plan their legislation over that period. I accept that we should proceed cautiously to start with, but, in the long run, we should not be afraid to move forward. It is nonsense that, after the Queen's Speech in November, we have loads of Second Readings together, then loads of Bills coming back on Report together, with the House working all kinds of hours. Then we have slack periods and a crossover of legislation coming from and going to the House of Lords. It would be more sensible to have some Bills starting in November and others in December, January or other months.
I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Perhaps no legislation should be before the House for more than one year. I am not saying that the process should drag on indefinitely. We should merely plan the year better. That would result in better legislation and better scrutiny. Once we have tested the water cautiously, I hope that we shall be a little bolder in the coming years.
One or two Conservative Members who intervened earlier failed to recognise that the first part of the fourth report after the introduction refers to the role of the Speaker. The Committee recognised the importance of your role, Madam Speaker, and that of your three Deputies in interpreting the report and the way in which our Standing Orders operate. We have confidence in you on that. That is why it is the first major item in the report. You are occupying the Chair for this important debate because of the importance that you place on the report.
I understand the argument that it is wrong to limit the length of speeches, but the Committee is not suggesting that the limit should necessarily be 10 minutes or eight minutes. It gives the power to consider the circumstances, to avoid people who have sat through a debate not having the opportunity to speak. It may be sensible sometimes to have 15-minute speeches. It is important to allow as 582 many Members as possible to contribute to a debate. They should not have to sit and listen to others and then fall off the end of the debate because others have chosen to go on for half an hour or 40 minutes. That is an abuse of our procedures.
I would have gone even further and supported a six-minute limit for short debates. We had a one-and-a-half-hour debate on the beef on the bone order late at night recently. Even if we assume that one hour was available for Back Benchers—although there was less time than that—it would have been fairer for 10 people to have had six minutes rather than six people having 10 minutes. We should let as many people as possible express their views.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) rightly referred to—[HON. MEMBERS: "Right hon?"] My hon. Friend. He should be right hon. He has been here long enough. Perhaps he might get it—it could go with the top hat.
§ Mr. Skinner
My hon. Friend has made me a Privy Councillor just when Privy Councillors are not going to have long speeches.
§ Mr. Pike
Fate might do that to my hon. Friend at some stage. He made the valid point that sometimes Members of Parliament can use the procedures of the House to achieve things for their constituents and gave an example. I remember another time when several hon. Members, using the top hat, spying strangers and adopting other devices, held up the private Stansted airport rail link for two years until British Rail agreed to complete the Manchester airport rail link. That was right. I remember asking one former Minister—it might have been the shadow Leader of the House in another role—how many people travelled to Manchester airport by rail. He said none. That was true, because there was no rail link.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on the way in which she has dealt with the issue of spying strangers. The Committee could not agree a way forward, but I congratulate her on coming up with a proposal that meets the requirement of the House, allowing us to do what we currently do, but in an up-to-date and sensible way.
I welcome what the report says about wearing the top hat. It is right that points of order during a Division should be dealt with differently. I have worn the top hat many times and I thought that there was no problem with it until one of my constituents took a photograph of me wearing it from his television. If the hat had had "10s 6d" on the side, it would have taken me back to the only starring role that I had in a school play, many years ago, when I played the Mad Hatter. It looks silly, particularly to those outside the House who do not understand why we wear it. The proposals are sensible.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the report. I shall support the motions to change our Standing Orders.
§ Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)
Thank you, Madam Speaker, for allowing me to contribute to the debate, as a member of the Modernisation Committee. I agree with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on one issue—if we are modernising something, we have to have a clear perception of what it 583 is for, so that the modernisation does not damage it. What is this place for? The primary role of the House is to hold the Government to account, to ensure that sensible laws are passed and to give strong representation to our constituents.
There are many myths about the House, which those of us who have come here only recently can see have some holes in them. Once a Member has been here for a while, the mythology begins to take over from the reality. There is a myth that we are a self-governing institution, but we are constrained in many ways by what the Government allow us to do. Some of our considerations of the report were limited by what we were advised that the Government might permit us to do. Some of the co-operation that has been discussed is dependent on what the usual channels agree to. We must not be taken in by the myth that we are a self-governing institution with complete free will, made up entirely of sensible and reasonable people.
§ Mr. Shepherd
I must intervene, because the hon. Gentleman is expressing a peculiar view of life that has become current. The Government are the Government because they have a majority of elected representatives in the House. When the Government say something, they are speaking for a majority of elected representatives. This House determines matters, based on the number of Back Benchers behind the Government Front Bench. That is the essence of the House. There is nothing romantic about it. It is practical, it is true, it is direct and it is the force of government in this country.
§ Mr. Stunell
I was not saying that what goes on was a romance—I was saying that it was a myth. One of the jobs of the Modernisation Committee is to make the myth a reality. That is what the reforms that we have been trying to make over the past 12 months, which I hope that we shall pursue much more rigorously in future, are designed to achieve. One must ask whether, in the recent past, the House has been effective in holding Governments to account. Anecdote after anecdote—those of us outside the House at the time could only read them in newspapers—show that the Government were able to do as they pleased and were not held rigorously to account. I hear Opposition Members complaining during Question Time that they are not able effectively to hold the Government to account. We must accept that we do not have a perfect institution; we have an institution which needs to be modernised.
§ Mr. Syms
It is possible in the Chamber to put the majority party on the rack, but the time of judgment is not in the Chamber; it is when people vote at an election. The previous Government had many difficult moments, and lost half their Members of Parliament. That is the Chamber holding the Government to account and the people making their final decision.
§ Mr. Stunell
The hon. Gentleman's point is, in one sense, fair. Ultimately, the Government are held to account, but surely accountability is not just sudden death at the end of five years when the electorate pounce—or, indeed, at the end of 18 years. Accountability is about ensuring that the Government's day-to-day and 584 week-to-week decisions are scrutinised—one hopes before they are fully implemented and the damage is done. Accountability in the form described by the hon. Gentleman would certainly require an election every five years, but would not require us to be in the House during the intervening period, as the Government could simply carry on and take their turn at the ballot box.
I come to the issue of ensuring that we pass sensible laws. To some extent, I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) about consensus. Consensus is certainly important in some respects, but let us remember the two biggest failures of recent legislation. One might well be the poll tax, when strongly polarised debate produced bad legislation. The other might well be the Child Support Agency, when strong consensus produced bad legislation. The process of debate does not guarantee good legislation; it does not matter whether we are all friendly or all in opposition.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
The Child Support Agency is a case in point. People in this place agreed with the principle of it, and, because it was not properly debated—indeed, had the proceedings been timetabled, the Bill would have gone through even faster—they had no idea of what the legislation contained until the regulations were printed. By then, it was far too late.
§ Mr. Stunell
I thank the hon. Lady, who is a formidable near neighbour of mine, for her intervention, but, on this occasion, I think that she is mistaken. A timetable tries to ensure that, in the amount of time devoted to a Bill, opportunities are provided to debate its key principles. If we undertook pre-legislative inquiries—a proposal in the Committee's previous report, which the House approved—experts could point out what was feasible. We do not always pass sensible laws; even Governments recognise that. The Committee was informed that about 3,000 amendments a year are tabled to Government legislation by the Government because legislation is ill prepared and ill thought out and snags arise. We need a system in which we do not have to take down every building put in front of us and rebuild it.
The Government are not held to account. About 26 Select Committee reports have held the Government to account, but they have never been debated properly by the House. The fact that everyone knows that they will not be debated means that they are not taken all that seriously, either by those who draw them up or by Ministers who may be the victims of them.
We are not in a position to provide the strongest possible representation of our constituents. I shall give just one example why. Hon. Members acting on behalf of their constituents are constantly applying to you, Madam Speaker, for Adjournment debates. Your office told us that about one in eight requests are accepted, which means that, on many occasions, the Government are not held to account for their activities concerning a constituent or an issue. We need to go far beyond the contents of the Committee's reports, to ensure that we make time for the improvement of accountability and so that laws are properly dealt with. I think that there are 17 Law Commission reports waiting on a table somewhere for the House to find time to deal with them. On the whole, the stuff is not controversial, but it would improve the lives of our constituents.
585 The reports contain very modest stuff—points about short speeches, for goodness' sake. Speeches should be curtailed only when you, Madam Speaker, have more people on your list than you can reasonably accommodate. Apart from that, we should be hearing hon. Members from both sides of the House clearly expressing perhaps the views of their party and perhaps their personal convictions, but, above all, the views of the constituents whom they were sent here to represent. How frustrating it is for constituents to be left dumb when their views need to be expressed so clearly.
We need to make space and adopt procedures to allow pre-legislative scrutiny. The Committee heard examples that threw doubt on the carry-over procedure. I am told that, on several occasions, the previous Government nearly got round to introducing a Bill on adoption, but could never quite do so because they could not find enough time in one Session to get the job done properly. Such legislation might be controversial, but it transcends party barriers, should be discussed thoroughly and is urgently needed in family law. We need to ensure that we carry out some sort of audit on Acts of Parliament after they have been implemented.
We must remember what Parliament is for. It is for holding the Government to account, passing sensible laws and representing the people who sent us here. Those should be the foundations for modernisation. I do not think that, when considering those three key objectives of the House, any hon. Member could possibly say that we have gone nearly far enough or fast enough in improving the situation.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
I begin with a reassurance for the House: although there is more than an hour of the debate left, I do not propose to take anything like as long as that—[Interruption.] Do not tempt me.
We have had a good debate, and I should first reiterate what has been said in varying ways by many Members, about what the function of this place is, and therefore what the function of the Modernisation Committee is.
We are all proud to be elected Members of Parliament, and, when we come here, we have a number of important functions to perform. It is important that we should take part in the debates on the great issues of the day and take a critical interest in the legislation that Governments place before us. None the less, above all—here I echo to some degree the sentiments of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell)—it is important that the Executive should be held properly to account in this place.
I speak with a background rather different from that of most right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber this evening. Like the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), I have been here for 28 years, but only in the past year have I occasionally stood at a Dispatch Box to address the House. Over 18 years, I found myself at odds with my own Government from time to time.
The poll tax has been mentioned, but neither my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), whom I am delighted to be supporting in the debate, nor I could be held responsible for that. We constantly criticised and frequently voted against the measure. I also found myself frequently isolated on the subject of Bosnia during the early years of the Balkan 586 conflict. I was also one of the few Tories who opposed the abolition of the Greater London council; I thought it wrong to deprive London of a directly elected authority.
I give those three personal examples with hon. Members who have recently been elected to support the Government especially in mind. Without wishing to sow the seeds of dissension and rebellion, I must tell them that they should, to some degree, take as their text the admirable and robust words of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), whose spectre has haunted the debate, although he has not been present.
Those who are elected in support of a Government have a prime duty to try to ensure that the Government whom they are pleased to support produce legislation that is well thought out, constructive and sensible, and that the Executive does not become overweening, over-powerful and arrogant. All of us in the Chamber have a duty in that regard, but it lies especially heavily on the shoulders of those who sit on the Government side.
My test of the effectiveness of the Modernisation Committee is the extent to which it is making this place a more effective Chamber. I welcome the reports before us, as did my right hon. Friend in his admirable and succinct opening speech, and I pay my tribute to the Leader of the House.
Being Leader of the House is a somewhat schizophrenic job, and we must all be sympathetic towards the right hon. Lady. Obviously, she is in charge of the Government's business and she has a partisan duty to ensure that the Government get that business. But she also has a wider responsibility—in many respects second only to yours, Madam Speaker—to the House in general.
I believe that in the way in which the right hon. Lady has chaired the Committee, she has discharged that second duty with scrupulous efficiency. I served on it for the first few months of its existence and then moved to the Parliamentary Privilege Cornrnittee—a joint Committee between this House and the other place on which, again, I serve with the right hon. Lady. I do not want to embarrass her, or to divulge what that Committee is discussing, so I shall simply say that she is considering the issues there with the same impartiality that she sought to bring to her chairmanship of the Modernisation Committee when I served on that.
However, having said all that, let me now look at what is being proposed and at some of the important points that have been made during the debate. It is crucial that we should all take to heart the comments by the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I often disagree with both of them, but the one thing that no one in the Chamber could begin to deny is that they are both first and foremost consummate parliamentarians, who believe in this place and seek to achieve what they believe in through this place. Their attendance here is also exemplary.
If only others would take a leaf out of their book in that latter regard, the Chamber might be what it truly should be—the cockpit of the nation. It is important that the Modernisation Committee should have as its prime objective bringing the Chamber back to true life. I supported the Jopling reforms, but some of them have had a bad effect in that respect. Thursday nights are a prime example. There were Thursday nights, not so long ago, when the Chamber would have been full at 9 o'clock. Now it is almost empty, although it is fuller tonight than it has been for several Thursdays.
587 The Chamber needs to be well attended. It should be the very centre of our parliamentary life and existence. Of course, the Committees, both Standing and Select, are important, but the Chamber is far more important.
The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) spoke about confrontation, an issue which my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) picked up. I do not think that people outside are necessarily disgusted by noise. I remember Norman Tebbit, or Lord Tebbit as he is now, saying that, if people looked at the Supreme Soviet—this was in the days before the end of the cold war—they would see an assembly that was sycophantic but that had no democracy. He contrasted it with the House of Commons at its most lively and rumbustious.
The House is often at its best either when it is debating issues on their merits, without regard to party affiliation—as we are tonight and as we did on Tuesday when we talked about the voting system—or when a great issue of national importance has brought us here with conflicting passions. No one who was here on that Saturday morning the day after the Falklands had been invaded will ever forget that debate, which exercised great influence not only on the nation but throughout the world—the way in which it influenced history has now been fully accepted and documented.
I should like the Chamber to be better attended, which is why I particularly welcome the Modernisation Committee's recommendation—a number of hon. Members have referred to it—that hon. Members should be encouraged and even disciplined to attend more regularly and to stay once they are here. It is discourteous in the extreme for hon. Members to turn up, deliver themselves of a few random thoughts and then to waltz away without returning for the winding-up speeches. If hon. Members take part in a debate, they should remain throughout the whole of the proceedings, save for taking a little modest refreshment, perhaps; they should listen to what others have to say about their contributions and perhaps to intervene—that is why I welcome the recommendation on injury time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who has been described as the man best qualified to be Parliament's shop steward, talked about the dangers of a too rigid application of timing. Those of us who were privileged enough to have listened to Michael Foot or Enoch Powell speaking in the Chamber would not have wanted many of their speeches time limited. Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Poole rightly argued that to limit the time for minority parties, some of which have only one, two, three or four Members of Parliament, would be relatively unfair. Although it is right that the occupant of the Chair should have discretion and exercise it properly, we should not go too far down the road of limiting time.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) was somewhat disparaging about those of us who believe that constitutional measures should be taken on the Floor of the House. I believe that those matters of supreme importance to our nation should be debated in the Chamber—the Modernisation Committee's recommendations on programming have been extremely helpful in that regard. We have not got the matter absolutely right, but we are moving in that direction, and the Leader of the House is to 588 be congratulated on her personal efforts to ensure that programming works more effectively than it did when it was first operated.
§ Mr. Tyler
In the interest of clarity, may I clear up one point? I do not in any way disagree with what the hon. Gentleman says about programming consideration in Committee, which I believe has been very effective—I, too, pay tribute to the Leader of the House. Moreover, I am not suggesting—I do not think that anyone has suggested—that the whole Committee stage of such a measure should be dealt with by Standing Committee. I believe, however, that the Modernisation Committee's compromise suggestion for consideration of other Bills—that the main issue should be debated on the Floor of the House exactly as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but that the detail of the schedules and subsidiary clauses would be much better scrutinised by Standing Committee—is sensible.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
I am aware that that is the hon. Gentleman's point of view, but, with great respect, I do not agree with him. Constitutional matters should take up a large share of the time available on the Floor of the House, so that all hon. Members have the opportunity to debate them.
We have heard a number of interesting speeches. It was fascinating that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes) shared some of the aims and objectives of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, although she came to different conclusions.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston talked about public perception. The thing that most damages this place in the eyes of the public is the acres of empty green leather they see when they turn on their television sets. If the Chamber could be fuller, more vigorous and more lively in its debates—and if those debates could be better attended throughout—the public perception would change dramatically, as people saw us about our task.
A number of references were made to the carry-over provision. There is a case for carry-over, but I associate myself with those hon. Members—particularly the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett)—who said that it should take place only on the basis of agreement and not by accident. It should be properly agreed, properly programmed and properly pre-announced. That way, complicated Bills that deserve detailed scrutiny could be accommodated over two Sessions, rather than one. To try to railroad through controversial Bills—or suddenly to say, "Good gracious me. We do not have enough time. We will run the Bill over to the next Session"—would be an abuse of parliamentary procedure which we should not begin to contemplate. I am glad that the Committee did not do so.
We have had a fascinating debate, and the Modernisation Committee is doing a great deal of good. However, I hope that it will heed the old Latin motto, festina lente, and make haste slowly. It is far better that the reforms that the Committee puts in place should be on the basis of proper detailed consideration. The Committee should truly help to make the Chamber a more lively place and the House a more effective instrument of legislation. Above all, the Committee should try to make the House a place where the Government—wherever they come from in the political spectrum—are held constantly to account and made properly and fully answerable for their every action.
589 Let me finish with this point. When I sat on the Government Benches, I once said that we must not take to ourselves powers that we would not wish others to exercise. It was a lesson which was not always heeded. I hope that Labour Members will realise that the vast majority that they enjoy at the moment at the will of the electorate—and because of some of the mistakes that we made—is not theirs as of permanent right. In working out how we should run this place in the future, that should be uppermost in their minds.
§ Mrs. Ann Taylor
I wish to reply briefly to some of the points raised in what has been a good-humoured, informative and—for the House of Commons—enjoyable debate. I wish we could have more such enjoyable debates. I want to deal with each speech briefly, and I hope that I will be able to cover all the points.
First, I thank the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) for his positive comments on the report. He talked about his thoughts on dress for officials of the House of Commons and was somewhat radical in his proposals. On that basis, I will certainly welcome him to the Modernisation Committee in due course. I also welcome his comments about carry-over being a process of extending the runway for Bills. That is how we should see it—as a positive move, but one which applies only in certain circumstances and not universally.
The right hon. Member also referred to the position of the referee in all this, and the importance of Madam Speaker's approach. We place a great deal of trust in Madam Speaker and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) said, that is why the Committee made particular mention of the role of the Chair and our confidence in it. I noticed that the right hon. Gentleman is a supporter of Queens Park Rangers so, presumably, he has specific views on referees. If that is the case, my views on referees and Bolton Wanderers may come into our future debates.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) claims to speak for the masochist tendency, although some of my colleagues believe that he speaks for the sadist tendency. He made important points, and I was pleased to have his support. He does not always support proposed changes in the running of the House, but, if we have support ranging from his to that of the other hon. Members who have spoken, we are perhaps getting it right.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) made a positive contribution to the Modernisation Committee, as all its members did. He said that some changes had come more slowly than he would have wished, and mentioned his desire to split constitutional Bills so that the principles can be dealt with on the Floor of the House and the detail upstairs, as happens with the Finance Bill. I agree that there is a case for that, but each Bill—constitutional or not—must be examined on its merits. I was glad that he acknowledged the progress that we have been able to make by programme motions on constitutional Bills. There was a little element of trade-off there, and we made progress on one front, if not on all at once.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the need to ensure that Select Committees work as well as possible, and that they are respected. The Government take Select 590 Committees extremely seriously. According to the latest figures that I have seen, appearances by Ministers before Select Committees are up about 20 per cent. on the figure achieved under the previous Government. I hope that that proves our good faith and seriousness.
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) asked about carry-over. He hoped that the Government would always announce at an early stage their intention to carry over a Bill. I draw his attention to paragraph 102(b) of the Committee's first report on the legislative process, which states:In drawing up detailed proposals the appropriate authorities should consider the need to ensure … the identification by the Government as early as possible of any Bill it wished to be subject to a carry-over procedure.We want to do that. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend mentioned the need for change in the dress of people in the Chamber. Personally, I tend to agree. We could certainly make changes as far as wigs are concerned, although the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) about getting back at the Clerks opened up a dimension I had not previously considered; I may review my opinion in that light.
The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) expressed his reservations forcefully in the Committee. Interventions have dealt with his points, and I hope that he sees that a wide spectrum of opinion disagrees with him. Many people believe that having a time limit will increase the rights of Members to participate in debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich has been an hon. Friend for many years. She was as open as we would expect her to be about her views on modernisation in general. To sum them up, she is agin it. She is quite open about that, and she is right to emphasise our individual responsibility for knowing the Standing Orders and the procedure. She was right to say that, over the past few years, fewer people have come to terms with the Standing Orders and the influence that they can have. I think that she is wrong to feel that the measures that we are suggesting are dangerous and that curtailing speeches is automatically dangerous. We are proposing sensible ideas which will help the quality of legislation.
The packages proposed both in the previous reports and in the ones that we are considering today are intended to improve the quality of legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) made that point very well. He is not a member of the Committee, but he seemed to show as much knowledge of our reports and even our deliberations as those who are members. He made a considered and positive contribution. If he had been a fly on the wall during some of our discussions, he could not have argued more effectively. He was right to point out the way in which the parliamentary year is concentrated, with lots of Second Readings together and lots of Committee work together. Soon, we might have lots of Lords amendments to consider, which will make it difficult to plan June and July.
Many hon. Members want better planning. No doubt in the next few weeks they will be asking me to plan ahead in a way that the parliamentary programme does not always make possible. My hon. Friend also made a valid point when referring to the earlier report, about the value 591 of pre-legislative scrutiny, which can save time later if problems are dealt with at the appropriate stage. He and others made points about private Members' Bills, which the Committee will want to consider as soon as is practical.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), who chairs the Select Committee on Information, made points that will be very welcome indeed to members of the Modernisation Committee, who were slightly alarmed at the initial reaction of his Committee to our proposals. The Information Committee thought that there might be significant difficulties with what I hope are simple measures, such as getting the names of constituencies on the annunciators. I am glad that we are likely to be able to make more rapid progress than was at first thought and I congratulate him on making that clear to the House and encouraging us in that way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes) reminded us of our manifesto commitments and said that it was not merely new Members who were pressing for change. It is important to remember that. We said that one of our purposes was to make Parliament more effective and more efficient. Some people who oppose modernisation think that if we make Parliament more efficient we are, by definition, making it less effective. I reject that approach. I think that the two can go together. I am glad that she was able to welcome so much of the report, although I can understand why she wanted us to go further and to consider the parliamentary timetable. As I said, that is one of the matters that we will be moving on to in the near future.
The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said that he liked interventions. He had some reservations about the timing of speeches, but his positive suggestions about the clock, the countdown and names of constituencies being visible to those sitting in the Chamber were constructive. Perhaps we can consider the suggestions further. I should like to pick him up on one other point he made about electronic voting—the fact that it might destroy the Lobby system. Members of the Committee were keen to maintain the Aye and the No Lobbies, whichever method of recording the vote within the Lobby was used. In the survey, some people thought that electronic voting might be the end of the Lobbies; that was a factor.
My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley drew on his experience of many years in the House to talk about the need for longer-term programming than one parliamentary year. I have some sympathy with his desire to have a more paced Parliament rather than merely parliamentary Sessions. That has some attractions, as does his suggestion that we ought to have 12 months or possibly longer—a fixed period—in which to pass any piece of legislation. The Committee has not considered that, but it is an interesting suggestion.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) took issue with his colleague the hon. Member for North Cornwall. I resist the temptation to draw obvious conclusions. He rightly said that accountability was a day-to-day matter. I do not think that the hon. Member for Poole was suggesting anything else. When he talked about the consequences of a general election, I do not think that he thought that that absolved us of the 592 day-to-day responsibility to ensure that the Government are held to account. I do not think that the two are contradictory. There should be no problem.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove mentioned that poor legislation had been passed both when there was consensus and when there was confrontation. That gives me the opportunity to make what I hope will become an important comparison that will help prove that the suggested changes are worth while and improve the quality of legislation. He said that the Child Support Agency was an example of faulty legislation produced with consensus, as everyone here knows. As was pointed out, it would have been even worse had we had a timetable.
My solution is the one that I mentioned nearly a year ago in our first debate on modernisation. If the CSA proposals had been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, I do not think that the legislation would have reached the statute book in that form. We might have had a CSA that worked from the beginning. We are learning from the mistakes of the past. The Government will publish next week the draft Bill on pension sharing. The Social Security Select Committee has already made arrangements to consider it. The measure is similar in that there is genuine agreement that something should be done about pension sharing, just as there was about doing something about absent parents. I think that by allowing pre-legislative scrutiny and taking account of that and of the views of outside bodies, we are more likely to get the legislation right in the end. I hope that the changes will be useful in that respect.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove went on to discuss demands for debates on the Floor on issues that get squeezed such as Select Committee reports, Law Commission Bills or Adjournment debates. We both know that the Committee is soon to discuss whether we can come up mechanisms to assist in that respect.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
My right hon. Friend will remember that I raised the question of carrying over legislation and said that as long as it is clear that the procedure is used for non-contentious legislation, and is carefully set out in a way that will not allow any Government to use it to steamroller through even more contentious and difficult issues, it may be acceptable. She has not chosen to give that undertaking.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I specifically gave that assurance right at the start. What is more, that assurance is in the third report. The conditions that will apply to the use of carry-over are absolutely clear and unequivocal. I do not think that the House of Lords would be willing to accept Bills that were carried over had we not abided by the assurances that I gave when I opened this debate.
§ Mr. Shepherd
It is clear that the Opposition has the absolute right to prevent carry-over, which is why it has to be done by agreement. Opposition Members can stop-carry over; is that not so?
§ Mrs. Taylor
To reiterate, the Bills that should be eligible for carry over will be, first, those that have not completed their passage through the House in which they originated; secondly, only those for which there is a specific ad hoc motion; and, thirdly, those whose 593 eligibility for carry-over has been agreed through the usual channels, which was one of the conditions I laid out at the beginning of the debate. That shows what sort of Bill we are dealing with in respect of carry-over.
I thought that the deputy shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), was going to make my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover an even better offer than he had already received this evening. My hon. Friend has been offered the top hat and an opportunity to be made a member of the Privy Council, but when the hon. Gentleman pointed out that, after 28 years on the Back Benches, he had got on to the Front Bench, I thought that he was going to offer my hon. Friend a place on the Front Bench—[HON. MEMBERS: "Come over."]—our Front Bench, that is. We live in hope of that happening some day.
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire spoke about the early days of the Modernisation Committee, when he was a valued member of it, before he had to leave to serve on another Committee of the House. He laid down some reasonable tests that he thought should be applied to any changes, which were well taken. I appreciate his comments about the way in which the Committee has gone about its business. He said that the real test was: would the Modernisation Committee changes make the House more effective? Only time will tell, but I think that the changes make a positive contribution. If more Members can speak in debates, that will be helpful, because people will feel that it is worth staying in the Chamber. If there is injury time for interventions, that will make our debates more lively, which will also be helpful.
I am grateful for the support given to me by the hon. Gentleman when he was on the Modernisation Committee and by the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), who is just leaving the Committee. It is on that basis that I welcome the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire.
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire spoke about the public's perception of the House and the fact that empty green-leather Benches do not provide a good image. That is a problem, as is the image at Prime Minister's Question Time, but we have a responsibility to ensure that more people know the totality of the work of the House of Commons, because those images—first, when there are few, if any, hon. Members listening to a debate and, secondly, the hothouse of Prime Minister's Question Time—are the extremes, whereas the vast majority of a Member's time is spent somewhere in between. Much of a Member of Parliament's time is spent on Committees and one of the things that the Modernisation Committee is trying to do is to ensure that the different aspects of the work of a Member of Parliament are given proper weight and regard.
The hon. Gentleman finished by advising us to make haste slowly. I do not think that we have been making haste rapidly—indeed, there is a sense that I have been too patient in my role as the Chair of the Committee. I have been extremely tolerant on many occasions, but it is important that we make changes that are acceptable to those on both sides of the House. That is what I have endeavoured to achieve in the Committee, but I realise that there is scope for more change. The report that we will publish shortly on the scrutiny of European legislation will be important; and the whole House will welcome the fact that the Committee is soon to consider the parliamentary year and related matters in terms of the 594 opportunities for debate. I hope that we can come up with even more constructive, and perhaps radical, suggestions that will also be acceptable to the House. For this evening, I commend the motions to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House approves the Third and Fourth Reports from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on Carry-over of Public Bills and Conduct in the Chamber (HC 543 and 600).