HC Deb 17 May 1999 vol 331 cc635-7
38. Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)

If she will make a statement on what representations she has received on progress made in modernising the House since May 1997.[83447]

43. Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

If she will make a statement on the steps taken to modernise the working of the House since May 1997. [83452]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

Setting up the Modernisation Committee was a manifesto commitment from the Government. The Committee has reported nine times. The procedure for the scrutiny of EU legislation has been overhauled, new mechanisms for pre-legislative scrutiny are in operation and certain old-fashioned aspects of conduct in the Chamber have been updated. The House will have an opportunity next week to consider the proposal for an experiment involving sittings in Westminster Hall.

Ms Buck

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is she aware that there is some disquiet about the minimal increase in this year's office costs allowance? Does she agree that, given the solid progress that has been made on the modernisation of the House, it is time to extend that agenda to look at issues connected with the sufficiency and appropriateness of the office costs allowance, to ensure that Members of Parliament are able to deliver a comprehensive and modern service to their constituents?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the anxiety of my hon. Friend and of all hon. Members to deliver the right service to constituents. However, I am not sure that that is a matter for the Modernisation Committee. The recommendation is made by the Senior Salaries Review Body. The recent uprating is a consequence of the implementation of a resolution of the House, carried some time ago, to uprate the office costs allowance by the all items retail prices index. I suspect that the SSRB is the right avenue for anyone wishing to reopen the issue.

Ms Blears

I am particularly pleased that our modernisation programme is improving the quality of our legislation, particularly through pre-legislative scrutiny.

On an entirely different matter, last week I had the pleasure of meeting the victorious Labour Members of the Scottish Parliament. They have some radical ideas about how their Parliament will function, particularly in relation to the sitting hours, which I understand may be from 10 am until 6 pm. That is an excellent way of conducting business. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we shall learn from the Scottish experience to inform our House and take our modernisation prospects even further?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's welcome for pre-legislative scrutiny. I share her view that it will be to everyone's benefit for us to have sounder legislation that should need less amendment as it goes through this place than has become the custom over the past 10 years.

I note what my hon. Friend says about the new Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. I am sure that we shall study the experience of those bodies with great interest and we shall no doubt seek to learn what we can from them. However, I fear that the extent to which that experience translates here may be another matter.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

One of the features of the newly modernised House of Commons is the number of times that the Prime Minister is absent from it. In view of the recent revelation that the Prime Minister has attended just one 30-minute meeting of his own Cabinet in the whole of the past month, why does the Modernisation Committee apparently have no plans to hand that part of the Prime Minister's duties permanently to the Deputy Prime Minister?

Mrs. Beckett

None of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises is for the Modernisation Committee. It is a matter of fact that of the past few meetings of the Cabinet, one was postponed because of the recess and another because many Cabinet members were away from London for the local elections. The contention is frequently, and wrongly, put by Opposition Members that, in some way, the Prime Minister is neglectful of his duties. I remind the hon. Gentleman that on one of the occasions to which he referred, the Prime Minister was engaged in negotiations in Ireland—something that most hon. Members would think was quite important. The hon. Gentleman's underlying contention is that the Prime Minister does not attend the House regularly. In fact, one aspect of the Government's modernisation is that this Prime Minister attends Prime Minister's Question Time much more regularly than his predecessors.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

In the Modernisation Committee, will the right hon. Lady look again at the procedure for private Members' Bills? If we are to consider antique areas of procedure, that must be one to look at. Can it be right that a Bill, such as that proposed by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) last week, can be frustrated by the actions of two—or, at most, three—hon. Members when the vast majority of Members on both sides of the Chamber wish it to proceed? Should not we properly scrutinise private Members' Bills in the expectation that if they receive the approval of the majority of the House, they will reach the statute book?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the anxieties expressed by the hon. Gentleman, and I have sympathy with his remarks about that Bill. However, it has always been difficult for private Members' Bills to reach the statute book if they are in some way contentious across the House, or if they raise issues of difficulty. That has been the case under Governments of all colours, and that is why we have procedures that do not make it easy for private Members' Bills to reach the statute book unless there is general consent. It is open to the Modernisation Committee to look at the procedures—as others have done—but that has always been the attitude and expectation with regard to private Members' Bills.

Normally in the past, whatever the colour of the Government or the Opposition, Members have not objected frivolously to private Members' Bills. One of my anxieties is that if we continue to have objections which appear to be for the sake of objecting, it will call into question the way in which the private Member's Bill system operates, which might be unfortunate.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will my right hon. Friend look carefully at the modernisation plans, as it is now clear that the lengthening of the hours on the first three days of the week is not only having an effect upon the efforts of individual Members of Parliament, but—since large numbers of Select Committees are losing their members either to Standing Committees or to other parliamentary business that normally has not been held at the same time—is having a deleterious effect upon the work of the House? Any further attempt to shorten the hours artificially, while extending them in reality, would be counterproductive.

Mrs. Beckett

I am not aware of any proposal to shorten the hours of the House. There is a proposal to offer extra debating time, with which my hon. Friend may or may not be happy, but that will be a matter for the House as a whole to decide. Since hon. Members on both sides ask continually for more opportunities for scrutiny, they will bear that matter in mind.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

The right hon. Lady has commented on the office costs allowance and the Scottish Parliament. Does she plan to recommend a change to the office costs allowance to recognise not only the smaller constituencies of Scottish Members of Parliament, but the fact that they now have more limited responsibilities than those in England?

Mrs. Beckett

No. It is patently not the case that Scottish Members have less responsibility; there are no two-tier memberships of the House. I am surprised that the right hon. Lady should suggest that that would be desirable.