§ Mr. Speaker
Before I call the Leader of the House to move the first motion, I should inform the House that I have selected amendments (b) to (e) and (h) to (k), in the names of the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), to the motion on sittings in Westminster Hall.
In line with recent practice, I propose that, for the convenience of the House, the debates on the three motions be taken together, as they are so clearly interrelated.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful for your guidance. Can you confirm that there will, however, be an opportunity for my right hon. Friend and me to divide the House—if, having listened carefully to the debate, that was necessary in our view—on the amendments that you have kindly selected, as well as on the main motions?
§ The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)
I beg to move,
That this House approves the Third Report on Thursday Sittings (HC 954) and the Fourth Report on Sittings in Westminster Hall (HC 906) of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Speaker
With this it will be convenient to consider the following: Motion relating to Thursday sittings and Standing Committees—
§ That, from the next Session of Parliament until the end of the first Session of the next Parliament, the Standing Orders and practice of the House shall have effect subject to the modifications set out below:
§ A. (1) The House shall meet on Thursdays at half-past Eleven o'clock, and will first proceed with private business, motions for unopposed returns and questions;
§ (2) proceedings on business on Thursdays shall be interrupted at Seven o'clock; and
§ (3) in their application to Thursday sittings of the House, reference to a specified time in the Standing Orders shall be interpreted as reference to a time three hours before the time so specified, save that reference to half-past Ten o'clock shall be substituted for reference to Twelve o'clock in Standing Order No. 24 (Adjournment on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration).
§ B. Standing committees shall have leave to sit at any hour and notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, subject to the following provisions:
- (a) on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays when the House is sitting, no standing committee sitting at Westminster shall sit between the hours of One o'clock and half-past Three o'clock, except as provided in paragraph (2) of Standing Order No. 88 (Meetings of standing committees); and
- (b) on Thursdays when the House is sitting, no standing committees sitting at Westminster shall sit between the hours of twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock and half-past Twelve o'clock, except as provided in paragraph (2) of Standing Order No. 88 (Meetings of
23 standing committees) with the substitution in that paragraph of 'twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock' for 'One o'clock' and 'twenty minutes to Twelve o'clock' for 'a quarter past One o'clock'.
§ Motion relating to Westminster Hall—
§ That, from the next session of Parliament until the end of the first Session of the next Parliament, the Standing Orders and practice of the House shall have effect subject to the modifications set out below:
§ (1) On days on which the House shall sit after an address has been agreed to in answer to Her Majesty's Speech there shall be a sitting in Westminster Hall—
- (a) on Tuesdays and Wednesdays between half-past Nine o'clock and Two o'clock; and
- (b) on Thursdays beginning at half-past Two o'clock and continuing for up to three hours (and in calculating that period no account shall be taken of any period during which the sitting may be suspended owing to a division being called in the House or a committee of the whole House).
§ (2) Any Member of the House may take part in a sitting in Westminster Hall.
§ (3) Subject to paragraph (13) below, the business taken at any sitting in Westminster Hall shall be such as the Chairman of Ways and Means shall appoint.
§ (4) The Chairman of Ways and Means or a Deputy Chairman shall take the chair in Westminster Hall as Deputy Speaker; and the House may appoint not more than four other members of the Chairmen's Panel to sit in Westminster Hall as Deputy Speaker.
§ (5) Any member of the Chairmen's Panel may also take the chair at a sitting in Westminster Hall when so requested by the Chairman of Ways and Means, with the duties and powers conferred on additional Deputy Speakers; and Members so appointed shall be addressed by name.
§ (6) Any order made or resolution come to at a sitting in Westminster Hall (other than a resolution to adjourn) shall be reported to the House by the Deputy Speaker and shall be deemed to be an order or resolution of the House.
§ (7) If a motion be made by a Minister of the Crown that an order of the day be proceeded with at a sitting in Westminster Hall, the question thereon shall be put forthwith, but such motion may be made only with the leave of the House and may not be made on a Friday.
§ (8) The quorum at a sitting in Westminster Hall shall be three.
§ (9) If at a sitting in Westminster Hall the opinion of the Deputy Speaker as to the decision of a question (other than a question for adjournment) is challenged, that question shall not be decided, and the Deputy Speaker shall report to the House accordingly; and any such question shall be put forthwith upon a motion being made in the House.
§ (10) If any business other than a motion for adjournment is under consideration at a sitting in Westminster Hall, and not fewer than six Members rise in their places and signify their objection to further proceedings, that business shall not be further proceeded with in Westminster Hall, and the Deputy Speaker shall report to the House accordingly, and any order under paragraph (7) above relating thereto shall be discharged.
§ (11) At the end of each sitting in Westminster Hall, unless a question for adjournment has previously been agreed to, the Deputy Speaker shall adjourn the sitting without putting any question; and proceedings on any business which has been entered upon but not disposed of shall lapse.
§ (12) The provisions of Standing Orders No. 29 (Powers of chair to propose question), No. 36 (Closure of debate), No. 37 (Majority for closure or proposal of question), No. 38 (Procedure on divisions), No. 39 (Voting), No. 40 (Division unnecessarily claimed), No. 41 (Quorum), No. 43 (Disorderly conduct), No. 44 (Order in debate), No. 45 (Members suspended, &c. to withdraw from precincts), No. 45A (Suspension of salary of Members suspended) and No. 163 (Motions to sit in private) shall not apply to sittings in Westminster Hall.24
§ (13) In each Session, the Speaker shall appoint not more than six Thursdays on which the business to be taken in Westminster Hall should be debates on select committee reports chosen by the Liaison Committee.
§ (14) The House shall meet on Wednesdays at half-past Two o'clock, and paragraphs (1) and (2) of Standing Order No. 9 (Sittings of the House) shall have effect on Wednesdays; and Standing Order No. 10 shall not have effect.
§ Amendments (b) to (e) and (h) to (k) to the above motion, which would substitute "Chairman" for "Deputy Speaker" throughout.
§ Mrs. Beckett
In my capacity as Chair of the Modernisation Committee, I invite the House to endorse the Committee's recommendations for the continuation of the experiment with Thursday sittings and sittings in Westminster Hall for a further, but more sustained, experimental period. I recognise, as does the Committee in its reports, that some Members still have reservations about the measures, but I believe that the majority of the House has found the reforms useful, and with the minor changes proposed—for example, to the Westminster Hall sittings—they could be more useful still.
Although we believe that the House has enough experience to wish the experiment to continue, we accept that we could identify further improvements. Accordingly, the Modernisation Committee has recommended that a final decision on such matters be left to the next Parliament. The motions before the House today would, if passed, enable that to happen. They envisage that the new Parliament should have the benefit of an experimental year before being invited to terminate, modify or confirm today's experiments.
I turn first to the issue of Thursday sittings. The Modernisation Committee notes:there are some Members who for years have been used to a full traditional Parliamentary day until 10.00 pm on a Thursday and who find the experiment not to their liking.Our first report listed the main arguments against bringing forward sittings on Thursdays: that changes on Thursday morning and afternoon would not be justified by the additional certainty on Thursday evening; that the House could still sit after 7 o'clock, so Members might still have to rearrange their diaries; that there were few votes after 7 pm on Thursday anyway; that devolution would reduce pressure on time on the Floor of the House; that the usual channels could make progress on increasing certainty without such a measure; and that the proposal would erode Thursday's status as a parliamentary day.
The Committee did not consider those objections insurmountable, and experience has borne that out. The move to bring forward Thursday sittings was a logical continuation of the Jopling reforms, which proposed an informal understanding that whipped business would normally be over by 7 pm on Thursday. Of course, under that proposal, Thursdays effectively became almost a half day, so long as the Government did not require more time, and it concluded with a period in the mid-1990s when the average hour at which the House rose reached its earliest at least since 1979.
The Jopling arrangement was intended to allow Members to make better provision for their constituency duties, but it could have continued under a new Government, with much new business, only if all parties had been willing to accept a reduction in opportunities for scrutiny, or if devolution had brought about a reduction 25 in business, which is not yet evident. A sustained reduction in scrutiny would be unacceptable to the Government—[Interruption]—and, no doubt, to the House, even if it had been available as a result of negotiations through the usual channels. [Interruption.] We have some mock mirth from the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). I simply tell him what I did not tell the House when we first considered the experiment: it was clear to many in Government that one reason why Opposition Members opposed the experiment on Thursday was that that would recreate a proper, full parliamentary day.
We think it far preferable to shift the parliamentary day so that the Jopling achievement of a 7 pm rise could be combined with a full day's business. Changing diaries at short notice can never be wholly excluded and is a fact of parliamentary life. Late sittings on Thursday cannot be completely ruled out, but they can be made very much the exception.
I believe that the experiment has been successful. As the Modernisation Committee report shows, the House has sat for longer hours on Thursdays under the new arrangements than under the previous ones. The report states that average sittings hours on Thursdays in the past two Sessions have been higher than in the previous Session under the old arrangements. Some Members complain that the House is thinly attended on Thursdays, yet the Modernisation Committee report shows clearly that there has been no reduction in the importance of business on Thursdays since the experiment began; nor has there been a reduction in the numbers taking part in Divisions.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
I am sure that my right hon. Friend recalls the tremendous fuss and furore, especially on the Opposition Benches, about the House sitting from 11.30 am on Thursdays. We have, to a large extent, come to accept that as normal, although some Opposition Members may still disagree. [Interruption.] Clearly, some refuse to accept it. The general public are somewhat surprised that there has been so much fuss about our happening to meet at 11.30 am on one day a week and at 2.30 pm on other parliamentary days, with the exception of Fridays. What is wrong with that arrangement? Does not common sense dictate that we should continue with it? Perhaps there is a case for meeting early on other days as well, apart from Mondays.
§ Mrs. Beckett
There is much in my hon. Friend's argument. Looking back, people will be surprised at the amount of excitement and indignation at the proposal to have earlier sittings on Thursdays. Most hon. Members have adjusted well. There are two, alternative, points of view that make sense: we should maintain the traditional parliamentary day, which finishes at 10 pm, or maintain the parliamentary day with which we have been experimenting, which finishes at 7 pm. The position that is hardest to defend involves the notion of a so-called informal agreement about a parliamentary day that ends at 7 pm, because people would not know where they stood, one way or the other. There was an experiment with that arrangement, but it was difficult to sustain and the current system is certainly preferable to it.
There was originally also concern about the effect of the changes on the work of Standing Committees. They have made good use of the new flexibility allowed 26 to them, but we owe, and should place on record, a debt of gratitude to the Chairmen and, not least, the staff of Standing Committees, who had to adapt to the new hours, and have done so.
I hope that hon. Members agree that Thursday sittings have, on balance, been a success and should be continued. I take this opportunity to add a further, perhaps light-hearted, note. Concern has been expressed at the reduction in Refreshment Department takings. For those hon. Members who, for whatever reason, remain in London on a Thursday evening, I strongly recommend the excellent food and service that the department continues to supply. Moreover, the surroundings are a lot quieter than usual and the House is a very agreeable place in which to have dinner on a Thursday evening. There are other places to eat in London, but few that surpass our facilities.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
I commend my right hon. Friend and her very excellent and talented husband, and point out how nice it is frequently to see them here on Thursday evenings.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. She, like us, has learned of the advantages of using those facilities on Thursday evenings.
§ Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)
The success of the Thursday arrangements could be judged by the large number of business questions that are asked. You, Mr. Speaker, do not always find it possible—I do not say this as criticism—to call all hon. Members who want to speak on such occasions. Last Thursday, the Deputy Prime Minister made an extremely important statement, so no one could argue that the Government have downgraded Thursdays through the system that applies on those days.
§ Mrs. Beckett
My hon. Friend is entirely right. He also rightly identifies the large number of Members, some of whom are in their place, who regularly attend business questions. In that sense, Thursday is a full parliamentary day.
I now turn to sittings in Westminster Hall. Although the Committee would not have recommended the Westminster Hall experiment unless we had hoped, and expected, that it would be successful, we were pleasantly surprised by the extent of its success. Westminster Hall is a more popular venue for half-hour Adjournment debates than the Chamber, and longer debates remain heavily over-subscribed, even though their number has increased. For that reason, the Committee recommends a rebalancing of the business in Westminster Hall to increase the number of general debates—including, perhaps, some hour-long debates—and we might give the Speaker the discretion to allow some three-hour debates rather than the debates of one and a half hours which were previously the norm.
The report states:Flexibility is of the essence in Westminster Hall.The arrangements are based on the report and are not contained in the Sessional Order. Within the continued experiment, the Speaker, whose Office supervises the ballot for Adjournment debates, may wish to experiment
27 with periods other than those specifically proposed at paragraph 36 of the report. I feel confident that the House will support such an approach.
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
Does the right hon. Lady know that, for many of us, the parallel sittings in Westminster Hall and the Chamber on a Thursday afternoon undermine this Chamber's scrutiny function, and give the impression of being a calculated insult to the supremacy of this place?
§ Mrs. Beckett
I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman say that. I know that some hon. Members take that view, but the reports that the Modernisation Committee has received do not show that it is widely shared, any more than it is believed to detract from the Chamber when Committees or other arrangements are held at the same time.
§ Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the view of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is not held universally? Some technical subjects or others that affect only some hon. Membersf—for example a recent debate on park home owners, and another on electronic conveyancing in which I participated—should be discussed in the House. However, there is insufficient time to do that in the Chamber and it is therefore appropriate to use Westminster Hall.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Apart from the many hon. Members who have already obtained debates in Westminster Hall and found it a satisfactory outlet, I know from the remarks of those who take the Chair there that they have sat through some excellent debates. It is not likely that we would have been able to find time for them on the Floor, but they are nevertheless worth while.
§ Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)
If my right hon. Friend listened to Home Office questions earlier, she will have heard me raise a subject that is important to me: proposals to relax the double jeopardy rule. We were able to debate that rule in great depth in Westminster Hall some weeks ago at an early stage of the proposals. We would not have been able to get involved at such an early stage of a consultation exercise without Westminster Hall and Thursday afternoon debates.
§ Mrs. Beckett
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, which all hon. Members should take seriously. He identifies the way in which our new flexibility enables the House to do more work. Surely that is helpful.
Some hon. Members continue to question the use of Adjournment debates, but the Government believe that they are a vital part of parliamentary scrutiny. The relevant Ministers and their officials must thoroughly consider the topics that will be raised in the debate and be sure of their ground. They are a valuable means of holding the Executive to account. Although they are sometimes regarded as routine and unglamorous, they can be searching.
Westminster Hall has already provided an extra 170 debates, or 120 hours of parliamentary time. In returning debates before the recess to the Floor of the House, it has also increased Back-Bench opportunities in the Chamber.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
I have found Adjournment debates useful in focusing a Minister's attention on a specific problem. However, could not that be done on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and, indeed—
§ Mr. Swayne
No, I would not go so far as Friday. As so many Labour Members are keen to have ordinary office hours, could not Adjournment debates be held on those mornings when the Chamber does not sit? Many Conservative Members resent the fact that Westminster Hall functions while the Chamber is working. Hon. Members cannot be in two places at once.
§ Mrs. Beckett
Westminster Hall will function on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings without clashing with the Chamber. As we said earlier, sometimes sittings in the Chamber clash with events elsewhere. However, the House is experienced at juggling different issues.
Select Committee reports have also benefited from Westminster Hall. To date, 15 extra debates have been held on Select Committee reports. The Modernisation Committee proposes that the allocation of debates on Select Committee reports should be increased. That will be done if the reports and motions that we are discussing are approved.
When this matter was discussed in the House, regrettably there was a misunderstanding when I referred to the possibility of those extra debates. It seems to have been assumed that I was threatening to reduce the time set aside for Committees. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Modernisation Committee felt that, of the experiments that have taken place in Westminster Hall so far, the Government Adjournment debates were the least successful part of the experiment, so those debates will be reduced to provide more time for consideration of Select Committee reports. I trust that that will be a welcome change.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
In considering the use of Westminster Hall for further debates, could the right hon. Lady examine the possibility of discussing reports coming through from the National Assembly for Wales—I shall not refer to Scotland—and the matters arising from those reports that need the House's attention, perhaps through legislative amendment? There needs to be a forum in which they can be debated by Members not just from Wales, as can be done in the Welsh Grand Committee, but from elsewhere.
§ Mrs. Beckett
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, and he obviously has some ideas in mind. From the beginning, the Government have set their face against the use of Westminster Hall to extend legislative opportunity. We were anxious that it should be used to extend scrutiny and debate, rather than to add an extra channel for legislation. It depends on exactly what the right hon. Gentleman has in mind, but no doubt he and his colleagues will return to the matter.
§ Mr. Winnick
In order to disprove the view that fewer Members attend debates in this Chamber because of Westminster Hall, I should point out that no Westminster Hall debates are taking place at the moment but the 29 Opposition Benches are not full of Members. There are eight Conservative Members on the Back Benches, one of whom may be a Front-Bench spokesperson. Surely that shows that Westminster Hall does not take away attendance from this Chamber, as has been suggested.
§ Mrs. Beckett
My hon. Friend is entirely right. There is no evidence that Westminster Hall detracts from attendance in this Chamber.
As the report emphasises, this is an experiment and we are free to try different ways of working. The hemicycle arrangement in Westminster Hall has not been to everyone's liking, so as foreshadowed in the original proposals, the Committee recommends that we try a new seating arrangement in which, thanks to concerns drawn to the Committee's attention by the shadow Leader of the House, space in the Public Gallery will be reserved for associates of the initiator of the debate. The orders implement the changes proposed by the Modernisation Committee so that the House can not only continue with the experiment, but modify it to find the best possible way of doing things.
When Westminster Hall was introduced, there was concern that it would detract from this Chamber. I do not believe that that has happened, or that there is evidence to show that it has. It was suggested that Westminster Hall would not be worth while, and that no Members would be interested in taking part in debates there, yet almost as soon as those sittings began there were vociferous complaints about the lack of clean feed transmission from that Chamber, showing that there was already interest on the part of hon. Members.
Moreover, as the report makes it clear, Westminster Hall is now covered by the national, regional and specialist press, just as the Committee hoped it would be when it proposed those sittings.
Westminster Hall has enabled Back Benchers more fully to scrutinise Government. It has increased the amount of time for consideration of Select Committee reports, and it has provided more valuable opportunities for Members to hold the Government to account. It has not—as some alleged that it woulde—enabled the Government to expand their legislative programme, and it was not intended that it should.
I hope that all those who are so often vociferous in this Chamber in calling for further parliamentary scrutiny will join me in voting for a continuation of Westminster Hall, where the bulk of the business is initiated by Back Benchers and Select Committees.
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, may I begin by correcting my speech on 7 November on the Modernisation Committee's proposals for the programming of Bills? Column 228 of Hansard shows that, in quoting Greg Power of the Hansard Society, I referred to the principal requirement of "back bench" MPs to vote with the party, and I inserted the words "New Labour" before "back bench". The words "New Labour" were my words. My intention is as in Hansard, but I would not wish people to believe that the words "New Labour" were written by the Hansard Society, which is not party political. I hope that that corrects my inadvertent error.
30 I regard the report as a curate's egg. In the main, I am able to support it, primarily because it proposes a continuation of an experiment. In that context, I am happy to support the proposals on Westminster Hall and Thursday sittings. 1 am pleased that those matters will be considered again after the end of the first Session of the next Parliament, when new Members to the Parliament will have had an opportunity to see both experiments in operation. I have no problem with that at all.
Many hon. Members who do not represent a Greater London seat believe that many of the Modernisation Committee's proposals on Thursday sittings are in the interests not so much of democracy in the House but of the needs of Members who represent seats not too far from the centre of the capital. The change that has been made since I have been a Member of Parliament of finishing business at 7 o'clock on a Thursday has allowed those of us who have quite a journey back to our constituencies and who regard our constituency work at the weekend as important—not least those of us with a large area to cover—to discharge our duties as constituency Members of Parliament and, I hope, to pay due and proper attention to the scrutiny of the business in the House. That change has enabled those of us who like to get back to base before it is too late on a Thursday to do so with some safety.
§ Mrs. Browning
I will in a second.
After I was first elected in 1992, I used to find myself driving down the M4 or M5 at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. I do not think that that was in my interest or in the interests of my constituents. I therefore support the 7 o'clock finish. I shall now give way to my right hon. Friend, who I am sure would like to give me the benefit of his advice.
§ Mr. Forth
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that Friday is still a parliamentary sitting day and that the House sits—as it did last Friday—to deliberate on important matters, or even to debate private Members' Bills? Presumably, she would not rush off to her constituency on a Thursday evening if the House were sitting on a Friday.
§ Mrs. Browning
Indeed. The record will show that, when I have felt that it was in my constituents' interests to be here on a Friday, I have been here. In the previous Parliament, I defied my party Whips when we debated a private Member's Bill on disability issues. I was here for a debate on hunting and for another debate on the ordination of women to the Church of England. There have been occasions when it was clearly appropriate for me to put the business of the House before my constituency engagements. Had last Friday's debate involved a vote on embryology, I would have cancelled my constituency engagements to be here.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I know the hon. Lady to be an assiduous and hard-working hon. Member. Indeed, I take a little credit for that as I was the first to teach her how to fight an election—by defeating her. Nevertheless, she makes an important point. On Fridays, more often than not the House has lost the right to vote on matters of
31 considerable importance. Therefore, there is a difference between the quality of the debates since the changes and the debates that were held before.
§ Mrs. Browning
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who has been a good tutor over the years.
Although I distinguish the House's regular business from that taken on sitting Fridays, I would be concerned if an early finish on Thursdays caused hon. Members to think that the business taken on Thursdays was less important or less relevant. I flag that as a note of caution.
As I said, I regard the proposals as a curate's egg. Although in principle I support a 7 o'clock finish on Thursdays, it should not diminish the quality or the importance of the business that the House considers. Equally, although as a result of Jopling we may now finish at 7 o'clock on Thursdays, if there is unfinished business in the House, especially unfinished business requiring a vote, it should be continued, even after 10 pm, and a vote should be held on the appropriate day.
Accordingly, last week I opposed the Modernisation Committee's proposals. I felt that we had got the balance right between allowing hon. Members to discharge their constituency duties at weekends and giving them the opportunity—which has been and is still being diminished—to scrutinise the Executive and to cast their vote when necessary.
I am happy for the Thursday sittings experiment to continue. We should, however, carefully monitor the nature of the business that the House considers on Thursdays.
I am a convert to allowing hon. Members to initiate Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall. It is very important to allow hon. Members to initiate debates on constituency matters and on matters of personal or general interest, and Westminster Hall is the ideal forum for such debates.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am sorry to invite my hon. Friend to press the rewind button, but given that the Leader of the House said that the changed nature of Thursday sittings had in no way diminished attendance at them, does my hon. Friend agree that if, as seems likely, votes that would otherwise have been taken on a Thursday are taken the following Wednesday, a dramatic and disastrous reduction in Thursday attendance is obvious?
§ Mrs. Browning
I think that that would happen. As my hon. Friend knows, I am totally opposed to any type of deferred vote.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I take the hon. Lady's point, and I am perfectly well aware of her views and of those of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). However, the hon. Gentleman's suggestion is not likely to be borne out because deferred business will be stand-alone business that will usually be taken after 10 o'clock. We do not take such business on a Thursday because the House rises at 7 o'clock.
§ Mrs. Browning
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for clarifying that point. I hope that we can take some comfort from it.
32 I should like now to deal with the Government's beguiling argument on debating Select Committee reports in Westminster Hall. I have some concerns about such debates. It is all very well to say that Westminster Hall allows us to debate more Select Committee reports, but advocates of the establishment of Westminster Hall listed as one of its virtues the fact thatnon-controversial business agreed through the usual channels which at present finds no place whatsoever in the time of the Housecould be debated there.
Although it is good that Westminster Hall enables more Select Committee reports to be debated, by no means could any hon. Member say that Select Committee reports are not controversial. Indeed, many Select Committee reports, especially in this Parliament, have been extremely controversial simply because they have criticised the Government. Such reports deserve full debate and scrutiny on the Floor of the House, with the relevant Secretary of State answering for himself or herself from the Dispatch Box. The practice, under the guise of more is better, of shuffling some of the more controversial Select Committee reports into Westminster Hall—where, by general acknowledgement, the nature of the debate is non-controversial—does not allow the House to call a Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box to answer Select Committees, which are well respected beyond these walls. If that practice were to develop further, it would represent a worrying trend.
§ Mrs. Beckett
The hon. Lady has identified an important point, and suggests that the wording that the Modernisation Committee previously used might require some amendment. It was intended from the beginning—I appreciate that the hon. Lady was not present at those discussions because she was not in her present post at that time—that votes should not be held on business taken in Westminster Hall. For that reason, it was described as non-controversial.
The scheduling of Select Committee debates on the Floor of the House is a matter for the Liaison Committee. The Liaison Committee, not the Government, chooses which Select Committee reports will be debated in Westminster Hall or in the House. There is no bar on what the Liaison Committee can select. If the wording used by the Modernisation Committee to make it clear that votes would not be taken in Westminster Hall inadvertently does not do so, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting that fact.
§ Mrs. Browning
I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that on many occasions Opposition Front Benchers have felt it necessary to require a Secretary of State—either by raising points of order or by requests for private notice questions—to answer questions on particular issues. All too often, it has been suggested that the failure of a Secretary of State to account for himself or herself at the Dispatch Box could be accommodated by an application for an Adjournment debate.
I urge you, Mr. Speaker, to consider the plight of an Opposition who increasingly find that accountability exists not in the Chamber, as it should do, but outside the House. There is also a worrying trend of controversial matters—which may not require a vote but for which a Secretary of State is required to account for himself or herself—being deferred to Westminster Hall. I said that I 33 supported the experiment for Westminster Hall. However, the Opposition will monitor the content as well as the quantity of the debates that are held.
Before I became shadow Leader of the House, I shadowed the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Trade and industry debates that were forced into Westminster Hall included the debate on the scandal of the Government's decision on the Ilisu dam—an issue of great importance to Members on both sides of the House, involving an important plank of Government policy, their so-called ethical foreign policy. However, instead of the Secretary of State—who had made commitments to the Select Committee—answering the debate in Westminster Hall, the task was left to a junior Minister.
Despite what the Leader of the House said about Ministers having to be sure of their ground when responding to such debates, it was clear that the Minister was unable to answer for what the Secretary of State, his boss, had said in interviews and to the Select Committee. Such matters get sidetracked into Westminster Hall, when they should clearly be dealt with on the Floor of the House by a Secretary of State who will answer on the record for his or her own decision making.
One could list many other examples within the Department of Trade and Industry brief alone, such as the Diamond synchrotron at Daresbury, a matter that annoyed many Labour Members of Parliament. However, they, too, were forced into Westminster Hall to ask questions of a junior Minister when the issue was clearly a matter for the House, in which the Secretary of State should have answered personally for a decision that he had made.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
I endorse my hon. Friend's point by reference to defence and foreign policy, on which I have on several occasions heard in Westminster Hall some serious announcements, albeit of a non-legislative nature, that would have caused alarm if made in this Chamber, with more hon. Members present.
§ Mrs. Browning
My hon. Friend has picked up on the range of our concerns about the nature of debate in Westminster Hall. We are worried not about the principle of Back Benchers raising constituency matters and matters for general, non-controversial discussion, but about its being used as a device to take things out of the spotlight that naturally falls on this Chamber.
For example, debates in Westminster Hall have included the annual debate that the Government promised on small firms—it was batted into Westminster Hall following a most damning Trade and Industry Committee report—and a debate on the construction industry, at a time when the industry faced many problems and it was very difficult to get Ministers to account for changes that they had made in the way in which the Inland Revenue taxed and required paperwork from it.
I accept that, as the Leader of the House said, these are often matters for the Liaison Committee, but if the success of Westminster Hall is to continue, the Committee must differentiate debates that can helpfully be held there—I openly admit that I have had very helpful constituency Adjournment debates there—and those that should take place here.
§ Mrs. Browning
I appreciate that, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that, by the very nature of the changes involved in creating Westminster Hall, it is important that the Liaison Committee should clearly defend the rights of Back Benchers and the Opposition to have some subjects dealt with at a higher level. I have given some examples of debates held there that I believe should have taken place in this Chamber. In supporting the extension of the experiment, I shall monitor the situation carefully to ensure that there is no continuation of that trend.
§ Mrs. Browning
I am sure that we are safe in the hon. Gentleman's hands, but he will appreciate that there is a need to monitor the way in which debates are distributed between this Chamber and Westminster Hall.
I hope that, when we return to this subject—that will obviously be in a new Parliament—we will have seen that some of the proposals have improved matters even further. I am grateful to the Leader of the House and the Committee for accepting the suggestion that those who have secured a debate be reserved two seats for constituents. The idea arose from the experience that I had of two constituents who came to Westminster Hall from Devon for an Adjournment debate and had difficulty in getting in.
I look forward to the reconfiguration of the layout of Westminster Hall. I hope that it will be more successful, because many of us have some concern about the current layout. I hope also that it will be achieved on budget. There is a modest cost attached to the changes, although I notice that desktops are being recycled, and I thoroughly approve of that. I hope that the Leader of the House will ensure that there is no overspend on the changes made in Westminster Hall.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I want to have a small whinge and make a plea for the Modernisation Committee to put in more work by the time we come to the end of the experiments.
When the Jopling Committee was being set up, there were arguments behind the scenes about whether it was needed or whether the work could be done via the Procedure Committee. It was argued that not only must we change procedures in the Chamber and in the Committees but we must consider the effects of those changes on the way in which the place operated. That seemed a good justification for setting up a special Committee, so I was pleased when it was suggested in this Parliament that the Modernisation Committee operated parallel to the Procedure Committee. The implication was that the Modernisation Committee would look carefully at the whole way in which Parliament works rather than just at what happens in the Chamber and the Committee Rooms—what I call the tip of the iceberg. We do not pay enough attention to the informal
35 working of the Palace, yet such working is affected by changes in procedure and ought to be analysed as carefully as those changes are.
The other day I heard a couple of journalists sneering at Prime Minister's Question Time and the slanging matches that take place then, but they laid emphasis only on what happened between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition at the Dispatch Box. They gave no thought to the work that goes into preparing the answers and the questions, or the informal lobbying that goes on around the building to find out what someone might ask. It is very important that when we change our procedures we consider the formal and informal practices.
My complaint is that too many changes have been made without considering what lies behind them. One example is Wednesday morning debates. I thought that those morning debates in the Chamber were very good, because on a few occasions—I admit that it was only a few—Cabinet Ministers answered them. It was an opportunity for the House to set the agenda, rather than Ministers, yet Cabinet Ministers answered the debates.
I should have thought that the same sort of thing, at least, should be happening in Westminster Hall. Those debates and the issues raised are important, yet it seems sad that over the period of the experiment, none has been answered by a Cabinet Minister. I strongly suggest that if the Government want the Westminster Hall experiment to be successful, they should at least on a few occasions—perhaps on Wednesday mornings—ensure that Cabinet Ministers answer the debates. That would give Westminster Hall more status and importance, and would improve the House's chances of scrutinising the Government effectively.
It is claimed that Westminster Hall provides more time for debate, but the danger is that there is more time but less thought. Again, what happens as a result of Adjournment debates should be carefully considered. A junior Minister, who certainly would not want me to quote him, has said that he spends all his time racing around answering Adjournment debates, either on the Floor of the House or in Westminster Hall, and does not have time to discuss with civil servants and ministerial colleagues the issues raised in those debates.
The point of an Adjournment debate is that it moves policy and argument on; it does not simply allow the person raising the Adjournment debate and the Minister responding to it to set out their entrenched positions. If the two sides are merely putting forward their entrenched points of view, we are just going through the motions. If we are interested in scrutinising Government, we should be considering the impact of an Adjournment debate. I realise that it would be difficult for the Modernisation Committee to carry out such work, but I suggest that it should be considering the impact of those debates. Are they merely an excuse to keep junior Ministers from asking awkward questions of civil servants? Or are they merely an opportunity to keep Members out of trouble? Or do they truly move political argument and debate forward?
§ Mr. Bercow
The hon. Gentleman suggested that having junior Ministers spend less time discussing policy with their officials was somehow a negative thing. As far 36 as many of us are concerned, the quality of junior Ministers in the Government is such that if they spend less time discussing or making policy and more time talking in the House or in Westminster Hall, so much the better.
§ Mr. Bennett
I do not think that that pretty stupid point of view deserves an answer.
The question is what we want from the House of Commons. A huge number of issues are definitely party political, but many Adjournment debates are on matters that do not divide the Chamber. They cover areas on which one would wish to persuade the Government to change their mind, and that seems to me a good reason for applying for an Adjournment debate. There would be many advantages if Ministers could spend a good deal of time talking to civil servants about why they cannot change policy.
It is claimed that Select Committees benefit from debates in Westminster Hall, but I have my suspicions about that. When those Committees were set up, the main hope was that they would help to inform Members about particular issues and put Departments under scrutiny. The danger of Westminster Hall is that the Select Committee ends up talking to itself, one junior Minister and one Member from the Opposition. My impression from at least two Select Committee report debates is that they do not lead to participation by other Members.
If we want Select Committee reports to help to inform the House, we must examine whether that is happening within the time given to them in Westminster Hall. Perhaps further experiments with procedure should be conducted, because by the time a Select Committee report comes to be debated, the Government have already given their response. We still have a situation in which the Committee develops its arguments and a Minister responds to them. At that point, however, the Minister can pick and choose responses to the points that Members have made rather than being pressed on areas of disagreement between the Select Committee and the Department.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I apologise to my fellow Select Committee Chairman, but has he not answered his own point? It is precisely because senior Ministers do not answer debates in Westminster Hall that Select Committee reports have been downgraded. They should be debated on the Floor of the House so that all sorts of people may understand the implications of the detailed work that those Committees have already done.
§ Mr. Bennett
I fully accept my hon. Friend's point. Part of my whinge is that we should consider that point with more care. Rather than simply saying that there is more opportunity for debate of Select Committee reports, we should examine the quality and impact of those debates.
Finally, I ask the Modernisation Committee to take a careful look at the ways in which Parliament has changed in recent years, a process that may be pushed much further with the opening of the new building. Parliament must be a place in which people talk, not just across the Chamber, but informally around the building. During my time in the House, talking to other Members—particularly to those to whom one is not naturally drawn—has steadily decreased because people have more office space and because of 37 how our procedures have changed. We must be careful not to destroy what used to be one of the most effective parts of Parliament—people talking to each other informally as well as participating in debate in the Chamber.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I have much sympathy with the points made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who is a distinguished and experienced Select Committee Chairman; and I shall return to them later in my speech.
I want to go back to first principles. The point of setting up the Modernisation Committee was not just to make this place more family friendly and easier for Members to operate in, or even to make life easier for our staff—although that is an important objective. All those aims may have merit, but the purpose of the exercise was to try to make Parliament a more effective institution, so that we—collectively—were able to do a better job. It was not merely so that we did not have to stay up so late or so that our staff could go home earlier, or even so that the media could have an easier time. That is why it is important to take stock each time that we take another, small incremental step forward in changing our procedures.
The reports are useful. I certainly support the general principle of evolution in this place—experimenting to see if changes work, pulling back a little but moving on if we can and trying to do so, as much as possible, by agreement and consensus. However, the general view on both sides of the House is that there is much unfinished business.
§ Mr. Tyler
I do not share that view—it is not a majority view. I agree with the views expressed by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning)—rather than those of the putative Leaders of the House who sit behind her—that the proposals offer a sensible way forward and that we are proceeding by consensus and experimentation.
§ Mrs. Browning
I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not take my comments on the reports as a blanket endorsement of the terms of reference of the Modernisation Committee as he has described them. I should like to debate that point further, but he should be aware that I have grave reservations about the Modernisation Committee per se.
§ Mr. Tyler
I know the hon. Lady well enough to realise that she would never give a blank cheque to anybody; I certainly accept the qualification she expresses.
38 Much important work remains to be done, although it may not be possible to complete it all during this Parliament. The ways in which we deal with private Members' legislation, and the way in which we have disposed of private Members' motions—referred to by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)—need further attention. Those matters arose under the Jopling reforms—not in this Parliament.
We must do something about early-day motions—[HON. MEMBERS: "Abolish them."] If we can find a means whereby a debate can be triggered when an early-day motion has gathered a certain amount of support in the House—perhaps through a ballot—that would be most helpful. We could thus ensure that matters that had considerable Back-Bench support were included in the parliamentary agenda relatively quickly.
I confess that I had misgivings about the detailed arrangements for Thursday sittings and indeed voted against the timetabling of questions at 11.30 am. I thought that it would have been better to hold a half-day debate, breaking at 2 pm with questions for an hour at 2.30, followed by a further half-day debate. However, we have all discovered that the present arrangements work reasonably well; nothing is perfect, but they are as good as we can expect.
I fully endorse the view of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton that those of us whose constituencies are some distance from London sometimes now find it possible to return to them on Thursday night—although it is not always convenient to do so because of Friday business. Some of my colleagues in the wilds of Scotland and the far west—it should not be forgotten that we have managed to make Scotland, Wales and Cornwall Tory-free zones—believe that it is important to try to arrive back in our constituencies in a reasonable state of health and mind in order to deal with constituency business.
The Westminster Hall sittings are extremely important. I have attended many of the debates there and participated in a few of them. The responses of Ministers to debates in Westminster Hall are often more helpful than those that we would receive in this place, because there is a less confrontational attitude and a willingness to give more information than might be thought appropriate in a full debate in the Chamber.
On occasions, I have heard remarkable confessions in Westminster Hall. I remember when one of my colleagues said that he would read out a letter that he had received from the Treasury even though he believed it to be the most boring and complacent waffle. The Minister present on that occasion admitted that he would not refer to that advice, because he shared the view of my hon. Friend. The Minister did not quite put it that way—if he had, he would no longer be a Minister—but a degree of frankness between Members is possible in Westminster Hall because that chamber is not so confrontational. That is a positive factor in holding Ministers and ministries to account.
However, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton is right to say that, when the subject deserves it, we must insist that a Cabinet Minister replies to a debate in Westminster Hall. I was interested to hear two distinguished Select Committee Chairmen endorse that view. I attended a debate in Westminster Hall last week in which the Minister for the Environment responded to a
39 very important debate on The Hague talks, the follow-up to Kyoto and global warming. Although the right hon. Gentleman was allowed only 10 minutes to respond because of the considerable interest in the debate of Members from all parties, he made an important response. My complaint is not about the quality of the response that we hear in Westminster Hall, but that the quality of the reporting of that response is not, I fear, as adequate as it might be if the same speech were made in this Chamber.
§ Mr. Bercow
I hope that the hon. Gentleman's phrasing a few moments ago was merely infelicitous and nothing worse. Is he seriously suggesting that it is right and proper for Ministers, when answering debates, to be fuller and franker in their disclosures in Westminster Hall than they are in this Chamber? Does he not accept that it is always incumbent on Ministers to answer fully and frankly to Members of the House?
§ Mr. Tyler
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has intervened, because it reminds me that he commented on the quality of junior Ministers in the present Administration. He did not have the advantage of being a Member in the previous Parliament, so I can tell him that, if some junior Ministers in the previous Government had been asked to respond in Westminster Hall, they would have been in considerable difficulty.
§ Mr. Tyler
I notice that the hon. Gentleman now agrees with me. The point is not whether it is right or wrong for Ministers to respond more fully and frankly in Westminster Hall—the fact is that they do. That is to the benefit of Parliament, Members of Parliament and, most important, our constituents. However, as has already been suggested, my only complaint is that it would help if—I dare not use the organ grinder and monkey analogy—senior Ministers were present in Westminster Hall. It would be useful to have it on record that junior Ministers speak with the full approval of their superiors and of the Cabinet. Certainly, the information that they have provided there has sometimes been very helpful.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I am somewhat confused. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that junior Ministers speak with the approval of their Department—which they obviously do—but that, in Westminster Hall, they are able to be franker than they are when they speak on the Floor of the House? That is rather confusing.
§ Mr. Tyler
I know that the hon. Lady sometimes occupies the Chair in Westminster Hall and I was merely observing that Ministers are sometimes—particularly in response to interventions—prepared to go further than they normally would in this Chamber. That is a good thing. I entirely accept the view of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that the more that we exchange information and extract responses from Ministers, the better that we can do our job.
§ Mr. Tyler
No, I have given way enough and I want to make progress.
40 There is an interesting contrast between the real-life dialogue that takes place in Westminster Hall and in Select Committees and the set-piece mediaeval jousting that takes place in this Chamber at Prime Minister's Question Time. That is fun, it is good theatre and it is most entertaining—that is why Americans enjoy it—but it does not provide us with information that contributes to the better governance of the country. It produces more heat than light, and that means that the other opportunities that we have to hold Ministers to account should be used as much as possible. One hon. Member said that the spotlight is on the House, but I think that it is moving away. Since the removal of the charge on the television feed from Westminster Hall, regional television programmes have increasingly been using recorded exchanges because they get real, live information from Ministers about issues that concern us and our constituents. We will find that more and more helpful.
I am worried about the subjects tackled on Thursday afternoons in Westminster Hall. My duties usually mean that I am in the Chamber then, but colleagues tell me that it is a mixed bag of debates. We are all conscious of that. I should not like to say whether it is a matter of changing the time or of finding more appropriate subjects for debate.
The key issue is that Members of Opposition parties have all too few opportunities to put a Minister on the spot. I accept that the same is true for Labour Back Benchers. My experience of putting a Minister on the spot in Westminster Hall is that I have an opportunity to get real information. The Conservatives' idea that the only point of being in opposition is to vote is absurd. How many votes have they won in this Parliament?
§ Mr. Tyler
I led the only successful revolt against the Labour and Conservative Front Benches in this Parliament, so I take no lessons from the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean).
It is absolutely true that when the Government have a large majority, the best chance of having an effective Opposition is to be a constructive one. It is noticeable that Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen, who have practical experience of Westminster Hall, have been truly satisfied with Ministers' responses to debates held there. It is the Members who do not bother to use those opportunities to act as scrutineers of the Government—both of Executive action and of their long—term plans for legislation—who feel that they have not achieved anything. I do not believe that those Members who have been intervening and interrupting in the past few minutes have ever been there.
What is important, which we seem to lack in the House, is the long stop—the final way for an individual Member to raise an issue of principle. The statement that was often recited at the end of questions—"In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the Minister's reply, I give notice that I intend to raise the matter on the Adjournment"—was a pretty meaningless safety valve. There is a way in which we can improve further the procedures for Westminster Hall.
§ Mr. Tyler
The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise that option. A recent tendency is to advise the Member 41 concerned that there are other opportunities—including Westminster Hall—for hon. Members to raise an issue, so fewer private notice questions are tabled. Opposition Back Benchers should have a greater opportunity to raise urgent and important matters.
I prefer the present layout of Westminster Hall, which works quite well, but I accept that in the spirit of experimentation—trial and error—it is perfectly reasonable to see whether the alternative works as well, which it may do. I do not have strong views on the proposal, but I shall be happy to accept it.
I hope that all parties will commit themselves to continuing the modernisation agenda beyond the general election and into the next Parliament. A great deal of business remains to be done and many improvements need to be made, not to make life easier for the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) or anyone else, but to make this place more effective, in the interests of our constituents.
I am not making a personal reference to your good self, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it was interesting to note that, before the election for Speaker, all the candidates made devoted statements of support, encouragement and enthusiasm for the modernisation agenda, although not all have been quite so enthusiastic when the specifics of that agenda have arisen since. Clearly, there is a general mood for change in the House, but there is still a lot of work to do to bring this place into the 21st century.
Finally, both the changes that we have introduced have made it possible to ensure that the House holds the Executive to account for their day-to-day actions and for their legislative intentions. However, we have not achieved the ultimate goal, and we should certainly not stop where we are. I very much hope that we will continue with the agenda and that, beyond the next election, we shall have even more recruits to the cause of modernisation.
§ Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)
I should like to begin my congratulating my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in her role as Chair of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons on introducing these proposals today. The work of the Modernisation Committee has been of great service to the House. My right hon. Friend and others will know that I would like us to go much further, but I am delighted that progress is being made.
My right hon. Friend said that we would wait until the next Parliament for the opportunity to confirm, modify or terminate the proposals or experiments on Thursday sittings and Westminster Hall that are currently under way. I hope that we will seek to modify further those proposals and experiments and take modernisation forward in line with many of the speeches that were made in the previous modernisation debate in this Session.
On Thursday sittings, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) suggested that much of the modernisation agenda had been pushed by those of us with London seats. In no way is that self-interest, as we London Members can get home to our own beds every night at present. Because London Members are modernisers and believe that the whole House requires modernisation, we put forward the proposals and drove the agenda, as may be seen from the voting figures for 42 the previous debate. However, concern for our colleagues with seats outside London has resulted in support from London for the 7 o'clock finish on Thursday.
For the record, it is not a 7 o'clock finish, as very often it is a 7.30 or even a 7.45 finish. One should not exaggerate and say that we are getting away with a short day. I have as my partner my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran), and it is impossible for him and his colleagues in the other Aberdeen seats to get to Aberdeen on a Thursday night if they are required to vote before they leave. Other Members, too, cannot get to their constituencies on a Thursday night. I, for one, want consideration to be given to those Members in future, as Members should be treated equally and should all have the same opportunities.
My experience as a London Member is that getting away at 7 pm or 7.30 pm means that I have a full evening of engagements so that has not shortened my working week in any way. On the contrary, it has enabled me to do even more. Of course, the Select Committee report shows that, overall, the whole House has sat for more hours and done more business in relation to time spent on scrutiny as a consequence of the early start on Thursday than we have done in the past. No one should therefore believe that the matter involves Members trying to suit their own convenience and purposes?quite the contrary.
I very much agree that the sittings in Westminster Hall are a successful experiment. I am not surprised that Westminster Hall is a more popular venue than the Chamber for short debates, as it is entirely predictable. If we are successful in securing a debate, we know when we will have it, meaning both the time at which we will start that debate and when we will finish. That is in complete contrast to starting one's Adjournment debate whenever the business of the main Chamber ends.
At that point, the hour is usually extremely late and no one, other than the hon. Member whose debate it is and the Minister or Opposition Front Benchers concerned, chooses to attend. In addition, constituents who are interested in the subject have no opportunity to engage with the Member of Parliament involved. Therefore, I welcome both the continuation of short debates in Westminster Hall and the variations that have been proposed today, which mean that it might be possible for a debate to last as long as three hours.
§ Joan Ruddock
To someone who works the average working day, it is not convenient to arrive here at 1 o'clock in the morning. In addition, if the debate is truly important to constituents, they will make time to attend. Let me give an example: I participated in a Westminster Hall debate on Sierra Leone because many of my constituents are deeply concerned about the terrible conditions in that country and members of their family who have disappeared there; those constituents, even those who were in work, would have been prepared to take time off to be here for the debate. One cannot prejudge constituents' desires. I simply believe that Westminster Hall provides better
43 opportunities. I welcome the suggestion that two seats be made available to the proposer of a motion, so that constituents might have an opportunity to attend what is, to them, a special occasion.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House spoke of the importance of scrutiny and how the continuation of the Adjournment debates forms an essential element in that process. I echo her comments and those of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) about the behaviour of Ministers in the Westminster Hall Chamber. This year, I have participated in five debates in Westminster Hall: in one, two Select Committees joined for a debate on genetically modified organisms and biotechnology; another debate focused on Government support for organic farming; and the most recent, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, was about climate change. On all those occasions, Ministers came to that Chamber to hear the forceful comments of Members who have specialist interests—not only Select Committee members, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) suggested.
I am not a member of a Select Committee. I can read Select Committee reports, but the debates give me an opportunity to hear members of the Committees present their arguments and material, and be subjected to examination by people like me, who do not necessarily agree with everything they say. That is an important opportunity and one that we did not have in the past. I am no expert on these matters, but I do not recall all Select Committee reports being debated in the Chamber of the House of Commons, and I understand that the advent of Westminster Hall has given us greater opportunities to debate more Select Committee reports. I welcome that development. I have enjoyed participating in such debates and I am certain that the House will approve the extension of the time that will be given to Select Committees for debates in Westminster Hall.
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish was highly critical on the matter, and I have to defer to his knowledge, but, surely, the Liaison Committee can be relied on—if not, it must be pressed—to ensure that the most important issues that the Select Committees have drawn into their reports are given time and an airing in Westminster Hall. If more work is needed to strengthen the involvement of the Liaison Committee and the Chairmen of the Select Committees in making such decisions, so be it.
I concur with those who say that on occasions it may be appropriate for a Cabinet Minister to respond to debates. It is important that that is on the record. We would not expect that attendance to be a routine matter, but occasionally it would be appropriate.
The physical arrangements in Westminster Hall should be experienced by all right hon. and hon. Members. In my view, the seating arrangements have made an immense difference to the way in which debates take place. We do not have the confrontational behaviour and attitudes in Westminster Hall that we see and hear in the Chamber. I suggest that there is much more deliberation of greater depth by Members who wish to air an issue which may be party political, but not in the partisan manner that is adopted in this Chamber.
§ Mr. Forth
Will the hon. Lady concede that it is at least possible that the reason for the outbreak of harmony 44 and mutual love is not necessarily the physical layout of the Chamber but, as the Leader of the House said earlier, the mechanism whereby matters are referred to Westminster Hall, which apparently is to do with the usual channels deciding between themselves what will not be subject to a vote or what is uncontroversial? That may lead to the outbreak of harmony rather than the ghastly shape of the ghastly place.
§ Joan Ruddock
As so often when dealing with these matters, I think that the right hon. Gentleman is entirely confused. If issues are debated in Westminster Hall and are not voted upon, that does not mean that they are uncontroversial. Controversial subjects are often discussed. There is often not sweetness, light, harmony or love between Members who assemble in Westminster Hall for a debate. There may be some areas of agreement. There is much more willingness to express where areas of agreement lie and to consider in rather more detail and with more subtlety the way in which disagreements have arisen than there would be in this Chamber.
I suggest that physical arrangements of the sort that can be seen in most other Parliaments have some effect on behaviour. I agree that they might not have any effect on the behaviour of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), but they can produce a much more harmonious place for proper in-depth debate. I suggest that that is what we are about.
§ Mr. Bercow
I would exhort the hon. Lady not to overdo the line about subtlety and sophistication, of which there is not a great deal of evidence in Westminster Hall that I can discern. Does she accept that what she has said about the continuing controversial character of many of the matters debated in Westminster Hall flies in the face of what the Leader of the House said when she was seeking to justify the Westminster Hall experiment? The right hon. Lady said that Westminster Hall was the appropriate forum for debates on non-controversial matters. Does the hon. Lady accept that many of us do not recognise the notion of an uncontroversial political matter?
§ Joan Ruddock
The hon. Gentleman has given his own explanation. Matters that may be considered in one sense uncontroversial because they are not leading to legislation, or are not a prelude to legislation, may still be party politically controversial. There are many other matters that are controversial, but not necessarily on a party political basis. The value of debate in Westminster Hall, and the way in which it is conducted, relates to the physical arrangements. I do not want to go on about them, but I think that they are significant.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) once redesigned this Chamber on paper. By taking in the Lobbies, we could produce a circular forum in this Chamber. I would like to see the day when Parliament truly modernises itself and comes forward with such proposals. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) would be extremely uncomfortable because he and I might have to sit next to each other. That would be a great shock.
I end on a small point that is outwith the matters that we have discussed so far—I make a plea on behalf of the Hansard writers. Those of us who have spoken in Westminster Hall have often wanted to check the record 45 of the debate, and have been told that we could do so in three or four hours. The Hansard writers are under enormous pressure, and the reporting of Westminster Hall is an added burden to them. When I have gone to read the report, I have seen that they are housed in extremely crowded and uncomfortable conditions.
As other hon. Members have said, it is important that the debates in Westminster Hall are recorded and that the report is available the following day, so that those debates become part of our parliamentary day. I therefore make that small plea.
I hope that we will pass all the proposals today. As I said earlier, I hope that the process will be evolutionary, if not revolutionary, and that we will continue to modernise the House of Commons.
§ Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)
I shall make a brief contribution, which I begin by picking up a point made by each of the previous three speakers, who all observed that some of the debates in Westminster Hall could appropriately be replied to by a Secretary of State. The debate on Rover, for example, and some of the foreign affairs debates could usefully have been answered by a Cabinet Minister. That would help to change the perception of Westminster Hall. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, will reflect on that.
Although we are dealing simultaneously with two proposals from the Modernisation Committee, they are different in objective and character. The motion on Thursday sittings has as its objective a better balance between our time in the House and our time in the constituency. It seeks to achieve that by re-engineering Thursday sittings so that they start and end earlier, so that many, but not all, Members of Parliament are in poll position on Friday mornings in their constituency.
The other motion concerns Westminster Hall and is aimed at better enabling us to hold the Government to account, by increasing the length of the frontier that they have to patrol.
I welcome the fact that these are agreed reports. I am convinced that that is the best way to proceed on matters concerning the House, and not, as happened a fortnight ago, with a substantial part of the House in disagreement.
On Westminster Hall, I speak as a supporter of the original experiment, although I am sensitive to the anxieties of my colleagues. I start from the position that I am basically in favour of bringing Ministers to account as often as possible, and I welcome any opportunity that gives me the right to ask them to explain and justify what they have been doing. Westminster Hall has enabled that process to take place. We have been able to cover many more subjects, and Ministers have been pressed on many more sensitive issues than would have been the case if debates were confined to the Chamber.
When one looks at the Government's plans for the future of Westminster Hall, paragraph 13 in the report is slightly oblique. I was grateful to hear the Leader of the House say that it is not the Government's intention to use Westminster Hall to push through yet more legislation. Paragraph 13 is, as I said, somewhat oblique, but the reassurance given by the Leader of the House is welcome.
Like other hon. Members, I have attended debates in Westminster Hall on several occasions. At present, Westminster Hall lacks character. It is rather like moving 46 from one's room in the Palace of Westminster to a new room at Portcullis House. No doubt in the course of time, Westminster Hall will acquire atmosphere and character, and we will get more accustomed to it.
Westminster Hall may not get wide coverage in the national press, but it certainly receives substantial coverage in the local and regional press and on regional television. People watching regional television do not, for the most part, understand the difference between a debate in Westminster Hall and a debate in the Chamber. As far as they are concerned, it is a debate taking place in the House of Commons.
It would be helpful to know what progress is being made with disabled access to Westminster Hall. At present it is not good. Perhaps when the Minister winds up, he could bring us up to date.
I agree with a lot of anxieties of my right hon. and hon. Friends who think that this Chamber has been undermined, bypassed and marginalised. That is the case, but the reasons are far broader than the establishment of Westminster Hall and have more to do with how the Government treat Parliament.
I turn now to the report on Thursday sittings. At first sight, it might seem to be a rather thin report, but I suppose that the arguments have been rehearsed in earlier publications and debates. At first sight, £3.70 seems to be a lot of money for six rather short paragraphs and an essentially unexciting annexe. My view is that the Thursday change is probably irreversible now that the majority of Members has adjusted to the change in the week. There are some difficulties at the beginning of Thursdays, but it will be difficult to turn back the clock.
I know that several hon. Members want to extend the Thursday pattern to other week days. Indeed, the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) raised that issue in an earlier intervention. It might be helpful to remind the House of what the then Leader of the House said about the proposals to extend to Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays the changes that we have made to Thursday sittings. That evidence was given in the Modernisation Committee's first report entitled "The Parliamentary Calendar: Initial Proposals". On page xxvi, the then Leader of the House said:The Committee may also consider whether all sitting days should start in the morning and conclude by 5 pm or 6 pm. While this might suit those Members whose constituencies and homes are within easy distance of London, there are many Members who would not be able to get home each evening however early the House rose. In this respect the House is not like most other organisations. MPs have to work both in London and in their constituencies.The conclusion of the then Leader of the House was:It will be up to the Committee to balance these competing interests, but the Government is not persuaded that a change of sitting hours to normal office hours is in the best interests of the House, individual Members or the Government.So it is not the case that the resistance to change Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday sittings simply comes from Conservative Members.
My concern about Thursday sittings is the knock-on effect of the changes, especially on the parliamentary week. I am concerned that business gets compacted into Tuesday and Wednesday. I happened to look at this week's all-party Whip. There are six meetings today, including the rehearsal of the Messiah by the Parliamentary Choir. There are 14 all-party meetings
47 on Tuesday, including that of the influential football group, and nine on Wednesday, but only one on Thursday—that of the British Russian group.
I think that I will give away no trade secrets if I say that the same pattern is followed with party committees. There are four meetings on Tuesday, five on Wednesday, but only one on Thursday—that of the Association of Conservative Peers, who are, of course, unaffected by our Thursday pattern of sittings. The reason why groups do not meet on Thursday is that Members of Parliament tend not be here. That has been reinforced by the business that the Government choose for Thursdays, which tends to be unwhipped. This Thursday, we will have an important debate on Europe, but it will arise on a motion for the Adjournment. Two Thursdays ago, we debated a Liaison Committee report. Last Thursday, we dealt with the remaining stages of a relatively uncontroversial Bill. I think that I am right in saying that there have been no serious votes on Thursdays since the recess.
The risk is that Thursdays will go the way of Fridays and everything will be crammed into sittings late on Monday and on Tuesday and Wednesday. I am concerned that that has been reinforced by the Prime Minister's unilateral decision not to hold Prime Minister's questions on Thursdays, because PMQs on Thursdays tended to stretch the week well into Thursday afternoons. Restoring Prime Minister's questions to twice a week would help us to have a better balanced parliamentary week.
I am conscious, as are other Members, that there are many other calendar issues to which the Committee will no doubt return. Some of my hon. Friends who serve on the Committee—my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is here—have an interest in what happens in Canada, where the shape of the parliamentary calendar is known several years in advance. Many other Members want to review the very long summer recess. I hope that the issue of tabling written questions during the recess will not go away. I am happy to go along with the experiments and to roll them forward into the next Parliament, but I put down a footnote about what is happening to our Thursdays.
§ 5.4 pm
§ Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
We are embarking on a move forward today, which I welcome. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and a couple of Opposition Members, I am one of the original members of the Modernisation Committee. We have already discussed the fact that the proposals, which involve a pilot scheme, are evolutionary and will help us to move on. Both proposals, but especially that involving Thursday sittings, were discussed from the Committee's first meeting onward. We discussed the hours that we spend in the House, whether we could arrange our week so that we had some certainty about when we could fulfil our constituency duties, and the importance of a definite finishing time for the end of the parliamentary week.
The job of Member of Parliament has many aspects which need to be balanced, and certainly involves more than working in the House. During those early days, I was rather depressed by the view, which was expressed mainly by Conservative Members but also by others, 48 that constituency business and our need to talk to constituents was subservient to our work in the House. The relationship between what we learn and hear about our constituents' hopes and fears and the way we make those hopes and fears our concern when we are in the House scrutinising, debating and voting on legislation is the substance of democracy. To argue that one of them is somehow subservient to the other misses the whole point of our role.
I am pleased by the proposals, but I would go further by making Friday a day on which it would be assumed that hon. Members would work in their constituencies doing the crucial business of listening to schoolteachers and other professionals. I would make that arrangement fairly secure, whether one's constituency was in London or Yorkshire, as mine is. That way, everyone would know where they were.
I also support the present arrangement for Thursday sittings because it has broken the mould. It has made it clear that Parliament would not, for ever and a day, necessarily start at 2.30 pm and finish God knows when. The House sat at 11.30 am, and the world did not fall in and we did not fall into disrepute. We sit the same number of hours on Thursdays, but we have shifted them to earlier in the day.
On Westminster Hall, I thought, rather simply, that in some ways that step forward was our most significant reform, because we got the establishment to spend not a huge, but a medium amount of money on bringing up to date a room that was to all intents and purposes a wasted, dingy public space. Off one of the most beautiful architectural parts of the Palace was the old, dusty Grand Committee Room. It had chairs in serried rows and a raised platform at one end, and my heart sank whenever I went there. Whatever else our reforms have achieved—I agree with the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) that we still have some way to go with regard to facilities for the disabled—it is now a good-looking room and a friendly and inclusive place in which to debate. We must not forget that the room remains a useful location in which meetings can be held when Parliament is not sitting. Such meetings could involve outside organisations, which might even bring in money to offset the cost of such events. The room is suitable for high-profile meetings as it has a media feed, which means that good publicity can be obtained. I strongly support paragraph 26 of the Modernisation Committee report, which reminds people of that.
Some hon. Members have been desperately antagonistic to the Government's ideas for legislative programming, arguing that they were in favour of greater scrutiny, but that the Government were having their own way in programming. Interestingly, however, it is those very hon. Members who are most likely to be intensely antagonistic to the Westminster Hall proposal and to reject the notion that it gives every Member of the House more opportunity to scrutinise Ministers.
I am sympathetic to hon. Members who argued against the suggestion that Westminster Hall should not be a forum for the discussion of important matters. I do not share the concern and consternation expressed by the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who said that important or controversial matters should not be dealt with in Westminster Hall. I do not want a big notice, 49 metaphorical or otherwise, to go up over Westminster Hall, saying "No important or controversial matter will be discussed here."
I believe that the public and media are alive to any occasion when Ministers can be called to account.
§ Mr. Maclean
Is it not clear that the Government have already erected a huge signpost over Westminster Hall stating that nothing of importance occurs there, when we hear that not a single Cabinet Minister has attended or wound up a Westminster Hall debate and that hardly any Ministers of State have done so either?
§ Helen Jackson
I am not speaking on the Government's behalf, but I remind hon. Members that senior Ministers have participated in major debates such as that on the climate change levy an example already cited. As the experiment evolves, Cabinet Ministers may want to participate in Westminster Hall debates or respond to them. Who knows? If we allow modernisation to move on, such things may happen.
It is important that any Minister should be on top of his brief, know what he is talking about and be examined carefully. If the public and media know what they are about, they will examine any occasion on which Ministers are called to account, whether in Wilmslow, Winchester or Westminster Hall.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that all Ministers should be accountable. However, the hazard with an Adjournment debate is that Ministers merely wind up, so it can be a little difficult to hold them to account when they are not being treated in the same way as in the main Chamber.
§ Helen Jackson
You were called a right hon. Member earlier, and I was imitating that. I apologise if that has offended you.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Lady will offend the Chair if she continues to refer to other hon. Members in that way.
§ Helen Jackson
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I shall reply to my hon. Friend's point. It is interesting that, when we debate the modernisation of Parliament on the Floor of the House, many hon. Members on both sides try to think of how the order, nature and procedure of debate can be used to call Ministers more closely to account. My hon. Friend's point may be considered in due course, and if such a structure of debate is more appropriate for this century, it may become practice.
These proposals, together with the important reforms to our legislative framework that we made recently, show that the Modernisation Committee has had an impact on the House. In the early stages, many people said that it had not and would not, but this debate shows that it is making an impact. These changes will allow Members of all parties to do their work as Members of Parliament and to scrutinise the Government more effectively. It is 50 important to recognise that this movement, this programme, this opening up of possibilities and ideas by which we can improve how this place works must not stop here, but must continue into the next Session and beyond.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
The Leader of the House, not untypically, revealed what really lies behind the debate on the so-called modernisation of the House, Thursday sittings and Westminster Hall when she used two phrases in the context of the relationship between Members and the work of the House. One was "increasing certainty", which she thought was a good thing; and the other was that Members should not have to "rearrange their diaries", which she also thought was a good thing.
If one thinks about what lies behind those apparently innocent phrases, one suddenly sees with great clarity what the whole thing is all about. It is about the House of Commons being organised and run for the convenience of Members—not so that they can properly discharge their duties or make life difficult for the Government, and not to allow serious debate, but for the convenience of Members. It seems that Members must know with certainty what is to happen and when. They must be able to organise their diaries far ahead without any doubt or disturbance, and the business of the House must be structured on that basis.
§ Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)
I know that the right hon. Gentleman holds those views very strongly, but it is a paranoid approach. All of us on the Committee take the view that our task is to make the work of Members in their constituencies and in Parliament more effective. The right hon. Gentleman may feel that we are not achieving that, but that is what we seek to achieve.
§ Mr. Forth
I shall come to that point in a moment, but I can answer the hon. Gentleman directly. One problem is that there is now a growing assumption that the work of Members of Parliament in their constituencies is of greater importance than their work at Westminster. The hon. Gentleman has just hinted at that. He will not know this, because he was not present in the Chamber last Friday, but we had a debate on embryology, which is arguably one of the most important subjects that is likely to face Members of the House of Commons for some time to come. If I reveal that about 12 Members were present last Friday to participate in that debate, and that it finished ahead of the scheduled time, that will give Members some idea of the extent to which it is now assumed that what Members feel they must do in their constituency outweighs by far their responsibilities and duties in the House.
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
The right hon. Gentleman has forgotten something: it is now taking many of us as many as seven, eight, 10 or 12 hours to get back to our constituencies. Some of us have to leave on Thursdays. He might ask the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) what he had to do last weekend to ensure that he was even at the debate today—it is a disaster out there. That is why the House is not being fully attended.
§ Mr. Forth
I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman is seriously suggesting that that explains the attendance 51 every Friday since he and I have been in the House; in fact, he has been here longer than I have. Even given the exigencies and difficulties of the moment, if Members thought that it was sufficiently important to be here to debate embryology, as they had an opportunity and, I argue, a duty to do last Friday, they would have made appropriate arrangements so to do—even given the distance that I know the hon. Gentleman has to travel and the difficulties that he may be experiencing. That is the point that I want to make.
§ Joan Ruddock
The right hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that I was also here debating on Friday. I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has said. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that a number of Members who participated in the debate excused themselves on the basis that they had to leave early because of the transport situation. I know colleagues who wished to speak and who were unable to keep obligations in their constituencies—this is not a matter of convenience—such as surgeries, which for most of us are a critical duty.
§ Mr. Forth
That may be. It is a matter of choice as to whether or when hon. Members do surgeries. When I did surgeries, I did them on Saturday mornings. I concluded that that was a waste of my time as well as that of my constituents, but the point is that many Members do surgeries on Friday evenings or on Saturdays.
Again, the hon. Lady illustrates my point. She is trying to find reasons not to be here on a Friday. When I came into the House in 1983, it was assumed that Friday was a parliamentary day on which the House would want to do its work, and that Members would be here for it. I believe that many more Members were here on a Friday then, but the difficulty is that the assumption has arisen—and has been strengthened by debates such as this—that it is more important for Members to do I know not what in their constituencies, perhaps as glorified social workers, than to be at Westminster as Members of Parliament.
§ Mr. Maclean
Does my right hon. Friend recall the many occasions in the 1980s when both major parties were whipped on three lines on a Friday for Government business? Occasionally, our party was whipped on three lines when important Adjournment debates were secured by the then Opposition, but all sides assumed that business on Friday meant full attendance, or nearly full attendance.
§ Mr. Forth
Indeed; my right hon. Friend confirms my point. It depends on the view that Members take of their duties in general. I make no apology for the fact that I regard my duty primarily and principally to be here at Westminster, in the House of Commons: doing my best 52 to hold the Government to account and to participate in debates and votes. I regard that as the main part of my duties.
§ Helen Jackson
Is the right hon. Gentleman really saying that, because he takes that line, he belittles the view of by far the majority of Members, who feel that they have a duty to listen to the views of their constituents in their constituencies on issues of the day, such as embryology or drug education—which I was talking to youngsters about last Friday?
§ Mr. Forth
The answer is yes, and I would go further. If the hon. Lady's constituents realised that, after their in-depth discussions with her, she felt unable to spend enough time here, for example, to represent their views on embryology, they might have some thoughts about the effectiveness of their Member of Parliament. If that Member of Parliament chooses to spend less and less time here and more and more time talking to people in the constituency, the thing has got hopelessly out of balance. I shall elaborate on that theme as I develop my remarks, but let it suffice for now to say that the hon. Lady sums up my views extremely accurately.
§ Joan Ruddock
As the right hon. Gentleman is making great play of the subject of embryology—which I agree is an enormously important subject—it is important to make it clear that, when there are votes on the subject, there will be a proper full—time debate in the Chamber. Last week's debate was but a Friday Adjournment debate.
§ Mr. Forth
I will take a small bet with the hon. Lady that, when that occasion comes, some hon. Members will complain bitterly that they do not have an opportunity to participate, whereas, as she will recall, we finished last Friday's debate early. Is it not another irony—as it is one of the points that I wanted to make, I shall develop it now, a little earlier than I had intended, before returning to my theme—that one of the main arguments for the ghastly Westminster Hall started with the assertion that we did not have enough time in the House properly to discuss all the matters that hon. Members wanted to discuss, such as Select Committee reports and individual constituency matters? The truth, of course, is that we have always had plenty of time in this place.
One of the things that we have had an excess of is time. We had Fridays, before they were effectively abolished by the Government. Additionally, when business finished early, as it did last Friday, and as it has done many times recently, we had the opportunity, for example, to take other business—were it not for the fact that the Whips have always assumed that, for the convenience of hon. Members, Members should not have to stay here in case we took subsequent business. The Whips believe that hon. Members must be allowed to be away from this place and away doing what they want to do, and then come back when it is convenient for them to do so.
We know that business has been prolonged in the House many times, when Whips have ushered in hon. Members saying, "Keep it going; we can't allow the business to collapse because colleagues are out of the House and don't want to be inconvenienced." It is on such occasions that hon. Members, if they took their duties seriously, could be in the Chamber having a series of short debates, rather than artificially prolonging the business.
53 Let us therefore do away with the assertion, on which the entire so-called modernisation has been based, that there is not enough time in the Chamber properly to deal with Select Committee reports and the like. There is plenty of time in the Chamber—there always has been and there still is. If the House chose to sit on Fridays, there would be even more time. The assumption that it is more important to be elsewhere than here and the priority given to the personal convenience of hon. Members have driven us to this point of what is inaccurately called modernisation.
We have an accumulation of factors, such as Fridays having effectively disappeared. Furthermore, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) said, Thursdays are being eaten into as well. Indeed, one can already feel the pressure of hon. Members who resent having to stay here as late as 7 o'clock on a Thursday evening and are champing at the bit to get back to their constituencies and to do undoubtedly important things there. Equally, we know that some hon. Members do not even come to Westminster until late on a Monday.
We can also predict—with a fair amount of certainty, I think—that, when the ghastly strangulation of the House that the Government unilaterally imposed on us a couple of weeks ago takes full effect, we shall have the "one day a week" Parliament, when the only day on which hon. Members will have to attend will be a Wednesday, to wander through the Lobbies with a slip given to them by the Whips and cast their votes in some eccentric way.
Surely that would be bad enough were it not for the fact that, apparently, at the very moment when the Government are conspiring with the modernisers to reduce the House of Commons to one day a week, the Senior Salaries Review Body is being urged by the Government to increase the allowance given to hon. Members. What a strange phenomenon: fewer days of work and less effort here at Westminster, but more money from taxpayers to support that diminished effort.
We have the ultimate irony, do we not? At the very time the modernisers are urging us to spend less and less time here—and cause the Government less and less inconvenience, by the way; that is a happy coincidence—the very same people, or at least a very large overlap of people, are urging that they need ever more taxpayers' money to support them in doing ever less here at Westminster. That should be taken into account when it is decided what we should do in the House.
The Thursday sittings are bad enough. However, when we look at the Westminster Hall experiment, matters get considerably worse. The basis on which the argument for the experiment was made—lack of time—is false. To make matters much worse, business is now being shunted off into a sideshow which, we have now been told, is little more than a facility for electronic press releases. Hon. Members have said that the excitement of Westminster Hall resides in the fact that regional television uses many of the debates to provide cheap coverage.
§ Mr. Tyler
Has the right hon. Gentleman attended any of the debates in Westminster Hall initiated by his Conservative colleagues? He shows a complete lack of respect for their parliamentary talents and for their effective opposition to the Government. They have been using such occasions to hold the Government to account. 54 If the right hon. Gentleman were to go and listen to some of his colleagues' contributions, he might cease to disparage the proceedings.
§ Mr. Forth
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman led me to that point. I have looked at the number of Members from all parties who have participated in the dreadful experiment. The answer to my question to the Leader of the House on the matter revealed that fewer than 50 Conservatives out of a total of more than 160 have bothered to use Westminster Hall. Fewer than 90 Labour Members have attended, out of a total of about 300—if I take away the payroll Members. But—surprise, surprise—the party with by far the biggest proportion of Members using Westminster Hall was the Liberal Democrats. Of course—Westminster Hall is tailor-made for them: an irrelevance, babbling on the sidelines, designed for electronic regional press releases.
§ Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
I find the right hon. Gentleman's argument about the duty to attend Adjournment debates particularly compelling, and I share some of his views. As he knows, I am a regular attender on Fridays. However, I wonder why that duty is such a flexible friend in his case, and does not apply to his attending an Adjournment debate called by the House of Commons—in which he is paid to represent his constituents as a Member of Parliament—if it happens to take place a few yards away in Westminster Hall.
§ Mr. Forth
My whole argument is that I do not believe that this artificial creation, this spin-off, this sideshow, this irrelevance should be given succour. I choose not to do so, because I want to be able to argue here that the experiment has failed and should not be continued. I hope to divide the House on the matter and to persuade as many hon. Members as possible to vote appropriately.
Let us put aside the fact that Westminster Hall cost the best part of a million quid. It astounded me when the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) said with some pride that we had turned a dingy old room into something really rather special. When she goes back and mixes with her constituents—as she frequently does—I doubt that she tells them proudly that she has been party to spending £1 million of their money on refurbishing a room at Westminster for what amounts to a sideshow.
§ Helen Jackson
Let us get the facts right. The cost was nothing like £1 million. I cannot remember the exact figure, but it was several thousand pounds. I am certain that the money would be recouped if the room were used to its fullest potential outside parliamentary hours, as I described.
§ Mr. Forth
We are now in the business of hiring out rooms. This is degenerating into farce. I will not fall out with the hon. Lady over a few thousand pounds of taxpayers' money. I would not mind betting that, when the facilities for the disabled have been accounted for, and when the room has been moved around to suit her hon. Friends—to make it more Euro—friendly, or whatever they have in mind—the bill will be nudging £1 million. However, the hon. Lady suggests that that is okay because we are now going to become a glorified village hall and hire ourselves out, no doubt by the hour. I do not know 55 whether the room is high enough to accommodate badminton, but I would believe almost anything at this stage. It just will not do.
We must set aside the irrelevances—the press releases and regional television, the various horseshoe shapes and whether constituents can get a seat—and concentrate on the real problem: the fact that Westminster Hall is siphoning business away from this Chamber and purporting to be a rival or parallel to it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and I tabled the amendments because of the peculiarity of having two categories of Deputy Speaker: the proper ones, who have a role that is not only distinguished but places certain constraints on them, in that they cannot sign early—day motions or participate in debates, and a new category of people who are also, confusingly, called Deputy Speakers, but who are free to continue to do those things. What is worse, that spuriously gives Westminster Hall, by implication, the same status as this Chamber.
Calling the Chairman in Westminster Hall a Deputy Speaker may confuse people and lead them to believe that it has the same status as this Chamber. That is wrong and threatens to undermine the proper nature and status of the role of Deputy Speaker. The amendments would deal with the matter by redesignating those who preside over Westminster Hall as Chairmen, unless you or one of your colleagues were presiding, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in which case your title would continue properly to be used. That would clear up the confusion and make a proper distinction between Deputy Speakers and members of the Chairmen's Panel, as well as clarifying the relationship between this Chamber and the sideshow that is Westminster Hall.
§ Mr. Bercow
Westminster Hall is truly soulless and uninspiring in equal measure. One of the evils that accompanies being an Opposition Front—Bench spokesman is that one is sometimes called on to represent one's party there. My right hon. Friend is missing nothing by not going there, as it is an easy get—out for Ministers, enabling them to pat Back Benchers on the head.
§ Mr. Forth
I am not sure why Opposition spokesmen feel obliged to go near the place at all. If our betters judge that it is somehow important, that is a matter for my hon. Friend to sort out with them. Personally, I have never seen any point in spokesmen such as him, with his serious responsibilities, wasting their time there. Perhaps he will revisit the matter with our hon. Friends to see whether something can be done about it.
I am especially worried about the way in which business is designated appropriate for Westminster Hall. We have heard that the usual channels, in all their majesty and wisdom, decide not what will be uncontroversial—the Leader of the House helpfully sorted us out on that—hut what will not be subject to votes and can therefore be taken in Westminster Hall. I object to that. Whoever these usual channels are, they have no right to speak on my behalf. I will decide what is controversial or should be subject to a vote. That is a freedom that, as a Member of Parliament, I hope to exercise this evening, not once but several times. If I can find another colleague who feels as 56 I do, we have the right to divide the House to establish its opinion in the Lobbies. For the usual channels to say that they have judged a matter not to be sufficiently important for a vote and to sideline it to Westminster Hall, where the cosy discussion that the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) mentioned earlier—full of harmony and consensus—can take place, is not good enough. That illustrates the danger of having somewhere other than the Chamber where such matters can be dealt with, courtesy of the usual channels. I find that quite unacceptable.
One thing that has come out of today's debate which I strongly welcome was the reiteration of the Leader of the House that as far as the Government are concerned there can be no question that Westminster Hall will be used for a legislative purpose. When this idea was first mooted, we were told that it was modelled on the equivalent Chamber in Australia. I have had the privilege of going to Canberra; I visited the Chamber there, and sat through some of its proceedings. They were legislating in the alternative Chamber. My great fear has always been that the Government had that in mind for Westminster Hall. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for having given us the categorical reassurance that the Government will not use Westminster Hall for any legislative purpose whatever. That has reassured me considerably.
The motion says that when it is proposed that a matter be dealt with in Westminster Hall, it should be decided forthwith. I am always rather nervous about such things—I feel easier if there is at least some possibility of even a brief debate in the House before a matter can be resolved. Yet, again, there is the implication that these matters can be dealt with easily and readily, and that we do not have to bother very much about the debate. Our betters have made the decision, so ordinary Members will not have a say.
If the House and Members had wanted Westminster Hall to be taken more seriously, I would have preferred the quorum to be set at a somewhat higher figure than is proposed. A quorum of three suggests that issues in Westminster Hall can be adequately debated with only three Members present. I know, before anyone says it, that in this Chamber there are routinely only three Members present in an Adjournment debate—the Minister, the Government Whip and the Member who has secured the debate. [Interruption.] The occupant of the Chair, of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, makes four. However, I make a distinction between the tradition of Adjournment debates in the Chamber at the end of business and the issues that it is argued are appropriate to be dealt with in Westminster Hall. If there is a real difference of kind and of substance, it should surely be reflected in the quorum. Suffice it to say that the amendments dealing with those points, in the names of my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border and myself, have not been selected, and I obviously do not query that. Nevertheless I believe that those proposals are unfortunate and hope that they may be reconsidered.
All in all, I believe that the experiment has been a failure. It has succeeded only in showing that the Westminster Hall phenomenon is unnecessary and otiose; it has been expensive and could be dispensed with without anyone's really noticing. If it is merely a vehicle for the better press releasing of colleagues' constituency matters, I should have thought that we could find a less expensive 57 way of doing it. Colleagues could go into the little new facility just off Central Lobby and speak to a camera trained on them. If the regional media are so keen on seeing a Member of Parliament saying something of interest to their region, that would be one way of doing it. It would cost almost nothing, inconvenience almost no one and we could hire out Westminster Hall for badminton whenever we wanted.
There are alternatives. This is not the only option open to us. We can go back to where we were. We can, in fact, provide more time for business in this Chamber if we are of a mind to do so, rather than arguing on the basis of convenience for Members and the subjugation of Members' duties here in the Chamber to those elsewhere. That will be worth while.
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
I apologise to the House because I shall have to leave the Chamber shortly to meet a policeman, and do not want to miss the appointment. I shall therefore have to leave before the Member who follows me has retaken his or her seat.
I have much in common with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) when it comes to House of Commons issues. If he presses a Division on his amendments on the chairmanship of Westminster Hall, I shall join him in the Aye Lobby.
That said, the right hon. Gentleman underestimates the great difficulty for many Members that arises from transport arrangements, even apart from the present and immediate problems. Our constituencies are a long way from London. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I take the view that we should spend more time in the Chamber. Members should build reputations in the Chamber, as he and several of his colleagues have over the years. I always impress on my colleagues—particularly new Members—that it is important to do that. However, they have constituency responsibilities, especially in marginal seats. We all have such responsibilities—even Conservative Members—and the volume of work increases as we approach an election.
I wish to discuss a narrow issue—the role of Westminster Hall in debating Select Committee reports. For some time, I have been conscious of a possible reform that the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons might wish to take on board. The report on Westminster Hall notes that Select Committee reports on agriculture have been debated three times, on science and technology twice, on Northern Ireland twice, on environment, transport and the regions three times, on international development three times and on education and employment twice. That is remarkable. During my 21 years in the House, we have rarely had a chance to debate Select Committee reports.
I favour debating those reports, but we must put the value of the debates in context. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)—now a Whip, and on the Front Bench at present—went on for years, as part of his own agenda for procedural reform and particularly when he came here in 1987 as a new Member, about the need to debate Select Committee reports. I agree that they should be debated, but do not believe that debating them is as important as some people believe it to be. They can be dealt with in another way, by Parliament as a whole, that would be far more effective and would give Members a greater chance to hold the Executive to account.
58 I speak from the experience of an aggregate 37 years on Select Committees and other Committees in the House. I spent seven years on the Procedure Committee, 10 years on the Members' interests Committee, four years on the Standards and Privileges Committee, 11 years on the Public Accounts Committee, two years on the Agriculture Committee and three years on the Security and Intelligence Committee, which is not a Select Committee but which works in a similar way. I draw attention to my experience because I have seen hundreds of reports from those Committees and have often wondered where they all went. What happens to them? What is their effect? Are they studied? When a response comes back from the Executive, who has written it? Is it a civil servant in the Department, with the Minister—under whatever Government—simply signing off the response to the Committee? I suspect that, because of pressure on Ministers, that is what happens.
I have been thinking about how we can hold the Executive to account through Select Committee reports; as has been pointed out, they are often extremely important. Westminster Hall offers such an opportunity. I draw hon. Members' attention to the procedure for European Standing Committees—I was also a member of one of those Committees for several years. Page 16 of the "Short Guide to Procedure and Practice" states:
Normal procedure at meetings is that the Minister or Ministers make a statement and then answer questions (for up to one hour or, if the Chairman sees fit, for 1; hours), following which the motion is debated.In Westminster Hall, there is no motion, but there is no reason why that procedure could not be adapted for debates on Select Committee reports. A Minister would be examined by Select Committee members present for the debate. Indeed, perhaps the Minister should be accountable to a wider range of Members—not merely members of the Select Committee but all those who bothered to attend—who should be called by the Chair to put questions to the Minister for one and a half hours before debate on the report.
That would be the best solution because, unless Ministers are prepared to give way many times when replying to debates in whatever Chamber—which can be unreasonable because they cannot get through their brief—we cannot achieve sufficient depth of accountability or the precise questioning necessary to ensure it. My proposal is for a much more specific procedure.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
That procedure is extremely useful. It is only sad that the House of Commons has not used it. Often Members do not even bother to attend meetings of such Standing Committees unless they are on the Committee. On one recent occasion, only members of the Committee turned up. The procedure has not been used; that is unacceptable.
The real problem, which my hon. Friend has not highlighted, is that although there might be a motion it is unamendable, and if it is voted on at all whatever the Minister has said cannot be used to change the wording; the procedure makes that impossible. My hon. Friend's brilliant idea leaves control—as ever—in the hands of the Government.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
My hon. Friend refers specifically to the procedure in European Standing Committees. I am dealing only with part of that 59 procedure; I suggest not that amendable motions should be tabled, but that the procedure whereby Ministers are questioned in detail be applied to issues raised in Select Committee reports. Hon. Members would thus be better informed and Ministers would be required to answer particular questions.
One occasion when that might have worked was during the inquiries of the Agriculture Committee into BSE. I was not a member of that Committee in 1990 when it produced a report on BSE that, in retrospect, proved to be remarkably accurate in its predictions. If there had been a procedure at that time whereby Ministers were held to account, on the scale of a Westminster Hall debate, about the development of BSE and the associated problems, Parliament would have been far more enlightened and the then Government might have acted far sooner. I do not make a partisan point; that could have been the result.
On many occasions, if the reports of Select Committees had been taken seriously and if there had been a procedure whereby Ministers could have been pressed, squeezed, pushed around and hassled at the Dispatch Box or wherever the debate was taking place, policy changes might have been made.
§ Mr. Bennett
Does my hon. Friend agree that Select Committees can already adopt such a procedure if they have any sense? If a Minister does not answer all their questions, they can require him to return and can pursue the matter. It is important for Select Committees to keep up a running battle, rather than confining themselves to a one—off report.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
My hon. Friend is a remarkable Committee Chairman. She runs one of the most effective Select Committee operations in the House; she adopts such procedures, but many Select Committees do not. They do not hold the Government to account. If the wider membership of the House—over and above members of the Select Committee—had the opportunity to press the Executive in the forum provided by Westminster Hall, we should be making an extremely effective procedural change.
The right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) would do well to make use of such a procedure—especially in the light of the role that they play in the House of Commons. I want the right hon. Gentlemen and other hon. Members to hold the Executive to account. The right hon. Gentlemen should not turn up their noses at a reform that might secure all their objectives.
§ Mr. Maclean
Of course we want to hold the Executive to account—to squeeze the Government, put pressure on them and wring things out of them, as the hon. Gentleman says. Does he agree, however, that it is impossible to do that in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall? One can do that only in this Chamber, with whipped votes, or through questions.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
The right hon. Gentleman is being somewhat blinkered. Will he consider my proposition? It would secure much of the territory that he wants to hold.
When we consider Select Committee reports in this place, the debate is invariably held between members of the Select Committee. When one attends such a debate in this Chamber, one finds that the chances are that members of the Committee will be called to speak—I presume that it is the same in Westminster Hall. Indeed, the debates are attended almost exclusively by the Committee members or by Members who have some peripheral interest in the subject.
That is not good enough for me. I want far wider engagement in such debates, and that will be achieved by putting Ministers in a situation where they have to answer questions for an hour or an hour and a half. We would then see the Chamber fill up and the Executive would be held to account through Select Committee reports as never before.
§ Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)
I welcome the chance to comment on the third and fourth reports of the Modernisation Committee. In view of some of the comments made by my right hon. and hon. Friends, I hardly dare admit the fact that tomorrow I shall be initiating a debate in Westminster Hall on the extremely important subject of reform of the European Union sugar regime. The debate has already attracted enormous attention; I expect it to be extremely well attended.
I intend to support the stance taken by my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House: to support the reforms as experiments. The principle that should guide the Modernisation Committee is that of making the House carry out its work more effectively. It is not a question of whether the House's procedures are viewer friendly, focus group friendly or even Member friendly; the real question is whether they are democracy friendly. Do they help the House more effectively to scrutinise legislation, hold the Government to account and, more important, to act as the voice of the electorate between elections?
The third component—the Bagehot—friendly component—is supported by the Hansard Society's commission on parliamentary scrutiny, but it has been neglected in the debate. We have talked about holding the Executive and Ministers to account and of scrutinising legislation, but another purpose of Parliament is to act as the voice of the electorate between elections. To that extent, Westminster Hall is a useful addition to the weapons that the House holds.
Some changes achieved by the Modernisation Committee are to be welcomed. The clearer Order Paper, the new arrangements for the Division Lobbies, the greater flexibility for the Speaker in calling colleagues to speak and the naming of hon. Members and their constituencies on the annunciators have all helped to clarify what we do. However, those changes cannot disguise the fact that, sadly, the Chamber is in decline. Some functions have moved elsewhere—for example, to Europe, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly—and others have become the preserve of judges and the media.
61 Some changes spring from the attitude of Ministers in this Government who have taken their cue from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who was reported two and half years ago as saying thatthe era of pure representative democracy is coming to an end.He went on to claim that people's panels, focus groups and so on demonstrated a different kind of participation in the democratic process. Only one type of democratic process counts, and that is the ballot box. From the ballot box and the House comes the legitimacy of Governments, and any Government who forget that will be in trouble.
The Minister and hon. Members will be familiar with the document produced by the scrutiny commission of the Hansard Society. "Creating a Working Parliament" points out:The Chamber's primacy as a forum for political debate … is now being challenged by the media, the judges, a devolved parliament and Europe.It adds:
The failure to recall Parliament during the fuel crisis of September 2000 was interpreted by many commentators as evidence of its irrelevance and the extent to which direct action has now superseded parliamentary representation.Those who criticised direct action as a means of bringing deep concerns to Government's attention should ponder those comments. The pamphlet points out:The crisis illustrated the problem for Parliament. The chamber's work can often appear irrelevant to most voters. It rarely sets the day's news agenda and is often slow to respond to issues of public concern.This, the pamphlet continues rather superfluously,has serious implications for democracy.Quite so.
We should use those principles to appraise the motions and all the other proposals made by the Modernisation Committee. On that score, I support the proposal that, as an experiment, some work should continue to be done in Westminster Hall. Debates on the Adjournment of the House enable Members to raise issues—not to hold Ministers to account—and act as the voice of the electorate between elections. Such an opportunity is useful.
The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) made strong and apposite remarks about Select Committees and their discussions. He was right. Ministers wait, perhaps with anxiety, for the publication of a Select Committee report on the work of their Department. However, if those reports are buried in the sand, Ministers may be aware of the issues, but they will not be examined on their record. Any opportunity that we have to put further pressure on Ministers regarding the findings of a report must be welcomed, even if that pressure is exerted in Westminster Hall. I say that knowing that my right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) have misgivings about Westminster Hall. Any opportunity is better than none.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am sorry to take my right hon. Friend back to her earlier remarks, but I note what she said about the failure to recall Parliament during the fuel crisis. Does she have any objection in principle, or does she think that there is a cogent objection in principle, to the proposition that the House should ordinarily sit in September?
§ Mrs. Shephard
I was about to come to that point. However, I shall be brief, because many Members want 62 to speak. The Modernisation Committee identified the problem of pressure of time, but I am more concerned with the pressure of time on the House and its procedures than I am with the pressure of time on Members. One chooses one's calling and, if one comes here, one accepts the realities of the job.
The Modernisation Committee should now—perhaps it should have done so from the outset—examine more fundamentally what appears to be the problem of time. If that is the problem, its proposals—some useful and some peripheral—have not tackled it. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, there is no problem of time. The House could sit in the morning and it would then have 12 or 13 hours at its disposal on each sitting day. That would remove at a stroke the problem of pressure of time. The House does not have to have a recess of three and a half months in the summer, as we had this year. To argue for longer recesses and shorter hours does not bring the House into good repute with the electorate, who see Members of Parliament designing ever easier job descriptions for themselves.
If the problem is the pressure of time, I suggest to the Modernisation Committee, as the Leader of the House did in her opening remarks, that it considers shifting the parliamentary day. That might be a positive way forward. I recommend it to the Committee in its future deliberations.
§ 6.7 pm
§ Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)
I am pleased that we are having another debate on modernisation and—
§ Mr. Maclean
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), but I have just heard that the prime item on the 6 o'clock news was a Government announcement that they are going to sell the dome. Have you, Madam Deputy Speaker, received any suggestion from a Minister that he or she wishes to make an emergency statement to the House? If not, what can you do to prevent yet another gross discourtesy to the House, whereby media outlets are informed of Government plans long before Members of Parliament, this Chamber or even Westminster Hall?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal)
The right hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member of the House. He knows that that was not a matter for the Chair.
§ Mr. Soley
I cannot be the only person who was aware that the Government were going to sell the dome at some stage. That was the previous Conservative's plan, but perhaps they did not tell the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean).
It is a great encouragement to me that the House is debating modernisation much more frequently. The right hon. Members for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) were both Ministers in the previous Government and they did not argue for change to the House's procedures when they were in government. However, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is complaining because he is no longer able to do all the things that he was able to but did not want to do then. He should remember that the major 63 parties go in and out of opposition and in and out of government, so our aim must be to make Parliament and Members of Parliament more effective.
§ Mrs. Shephard
I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman's remarks; he is usually extremely well informed. He must know that the previous Government made a number of changes to the practices of the House. I recall them being debated in his presence when we both served on the Modernisation Committee.
§ Mr. Soley
The right hon. Lady certainly supported changes in a number of ways. Back in the early 1980s, the previous Government took the important step of allowing Committees to take evidence, but people will have noticed, as I have, that they only took evidence on Bills on a few occasions. When it became embarrassing, they stopped doing it. Such activities brought the previous Government's record on change into disrepute.
The argument on which we are predicating the debate is that Members of Parliament and Parliament itself must be more effective. We may disagree—I suspect that I will with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and, certainly, with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—about whether we are succeeding, but we should start from the assumption that that is what we are trying to achieve.
The Modernisation Committee did not decide to see how Members of Parliament could work less, which is what the right hon. Gentleman said. I believe that Members of all parties work hard in the House. Few are looking for less work. The majority of hon. Members, be they Tory, Labour, Liberal or anything else, want to do a good job. We do ourselves no credit by trying to rubbish our colleagues by saying that they are in Parliament for the money or to have an easy time, because they are not. The right hon. Gentleman should not have said that.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I hope that my hon. Friend will not think me unduly unkind, but I have been here since 1966 and the common thread that has run through every Government, irrespective of their label, is that when Ministers are in office they do not want adequate scrutiny to be exercised, and when they leave office they suddenly become extraordinarily keen on it. I am no longer surprised at the unanimity of view, but we should occasionally remember that it is not in the interests of Back-Bench Members to pretend that only one side of the Chamber holds that view.
§ Mr. Soley
I am not sure that I made myself clear. I was saying that the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst and for Penrith and The Border did not argue the same case when they were Ministers as they are making now. I think that my hon. Friend's remarks support my argument.
I have a different assumption, which I had in the Modernisation Committee and which relates to my general arguments on this subject. In the past 70 years, the House of Commons failed to make the changes necessary to keep it up to date. We have all paid a high price for that. Although we are beginning to make such changes, the core of my argument—and I want to 64 return to Westminster Hall and the 7 o'clock finish, on which we are supposed to be focusing—is that they need to be part of a package that will not finish with today's debate. They need to be continued so that we can achieve the aims that even the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said he wants, although obviously not while he was in government. We need to address that matter if we want to be more effective.
§ Mr. Bercow
The hon. Gentleman criticises my right hon. Friends for changing their tune, but does he not accept, as he has done before, that when he wielded the weapon of parliamentary time in opposition to the previous Conservative Government, he did not argue for the wholesale reform for which he is now conveniently clamouring?
§ Mr. Soley
The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) might have missed my saying this, but of the 18 years that I spent in opposition, the first seven or eight were spent following the great idea that time was our weapon. I have admitted several times in the Chamber recently that in those years I kept members of the Conservative Government here until the early hours of the morning. After a while, I began to realise not only that it was not working—I managed to achieve one significant change in legislation—but, more importantly, that it was bringing the House into disrepute. No one outside understood why we were legislating at 3 o'clock in the morning. No one believed that we were doing a good job of parliamentary scrutiny because one or two Members were keeping the Government here until the early hours of the morning. We did that because we believed that we would eventually cause the Government to get tired and run out of steam. All I can say is that if it takes 18 years to get a Government to run out of steam, forget it, unless the Opposition are to make the same mistake as I did, which would be great.
§ Mr. Soley
Yes, this is not the first time that I have said that. When I was elected in 1979, I adhered to the idea that we would grind the Government down, but it was nonsense. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst now has that view. When I see and hear him—I do not know whether this will encourage him—I see and hear myself. We used to do the same things late at night in the 1980s to keep the Government in the Chamber.
§ Mr. Forth
I am extraordinarily grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his advice and encouragement, but I will be the judge of how effective I am in discharging my duties in the House. I would be happy to sit down quietly with the hon. Gentleman, perhaps with my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), and discuss some of our modest 65 achievements that have caused delay and—ultimately—put the Government's programme at risk. It is not necessarily a matter of amendments, but about the overall package of an entire Session. I am quite satisfied that my modest work within the existing rules has been worth my effort.
§ Mr. Soley
I am glad the right hon. Gentleman thinks that, but he might have misunderstood me. I do not agree with what he has said or, indeed, with many of the Bills that he has objected to and tried to stop, but it does the Opposition or Parliament no good to waste time talking and talking in the belief that time is an effective weapon. My argument is that that is not the case. My great confession, which I have made so many times that I thought everyone was familiar with it, is that when I tried to do that, it did not work.
§ Mr. Soley
There is no evidence of it yet.
The only significant concession was given by an Environment Minister on a planning issue which meant that local authorities were given the right to insist on the plan being the first consideration in a planning application. If the right hon. Gentleman regards that as an effective way of holding a Government to account, he has a minimalist view of what that ought to be about.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
If delay is not an effective weapon, why is the Queen's Speech on 6 December, and why are so many Bills mired in another place?
§ Mr. Soley
My hon. Friend draws attention to what some of us have known for many years, and I know that she understands this: Governments of both political parties have increasingly used the guillotine to get legislation through Parliament. We can argue whether that is good, bad or indifferent, but that is what happens. That is why I argued so strongly—I am delighted that the House agreed with me the other week—for the programming of legislation. Programming allows Opposition Members to determine the time that is spent on specific aspects of a Bill and the time of day when they are debated.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
My hon. Friend is selling out on the past. The matter is open to discussion, as this is a free debate. I do not accept that time is not a weapon, as I believe that it is an extremely effective one. Under the previous Government, there were occasions when we used time and won, although I accept that they were small victories. One involved the Housing Act 1980, under which council houses were sold off. By using time, we secured agreement on a Government amendment that protected certain classifications of property that were occupied by elderly people. That is an example of how time can be used to good effect.
66 I agree with my hon. Friend about the extent to which all business can be sensibly run throughout the night, but we should allow time for certain proceedings, even though that may be uncomfortable for the Government.
§ Mr. Soley
I am in danger of getting into a debate about timing, which I am trying to avoid, so I do not wish to go into that matter in great depth. However, I must respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), who is right that, in certain circumstances, time can be a weapon. I do not think that any Member doubts the central argument, but timetabling by successive Governments has made it impossible to achieve what the old theory of Parliament proposed and use time to defeat legislation. That 19th-century idea has not applied for at least 50 years. If we are going to use time, we must use it more effectively, which is where experiments such as Westminster Hall come in.
My hon. Friend the Member for Workington and I achieved changes, but the counter-argument is that they were relatively small, compared to the enormous period that we spent on them. My hon. Friend was at one with me when we spent night after night in the Chamber. However, in doing so, we brought the House into disrepute because—I am sure that he agrees—most people did not understand why we thought that it was a good idea to stay in the Chamber overnight, occasionally achieving small changes of the type that he described, but generally no change at all in the legislation. The method that we used also enabled the Government to have debates on difficult and embarrassing parts of legislation in the early hours of the morning—I accept that Governments of both parties have done that—so that they no longer had embarrassing defeats in the main part of the day.
As my hon. Friend knows, time and again in opposition we watched the Tory party try to have those debates in the early hours of the morning, so we could not get coverage. The proper programming of legislation allows the Opposition and Back Benchers to determine the time for debates. The central part of my argument is therefore that the quality of the time is more important than just having endless time for debate.
§ Mr. Bennett
Does my hon. Friend accept that he is making the mistake that I complained about at the start of our debate? He is assessing changes on policy as a result of what happened in the Chamber. He should have studied how the changes that occurred in that period came about. While a few people were in the Chamber keeping the House going, a lot of people were in the Tea Room, bars, restaurants and other parts of the building arguing about political issues, and some of that effort resulted in change.
§ Mr. Soley
Quite frankly, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) was far better than me at keeping people here through the night. I accept his argument that other useful things were happening elsewhere, but it is difficult to argue that that alone makes our system for examining legislation good. It does not, and we must focus on the quality of the time available.
§ Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)
I am sure that my hon. Friend does not need me to ride to his assistance, but I am happy to contribute. Will he cast his mind back to the early weeks of this year and when I had the privilege—if that is the word-of being parliamentary private secretary during 67 the 28-hour Second Reading of the Disqualifications Bill. I reckon that there are not many people in the Chamber—with the exception, perhaps, of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)—who could tell us what was in that Bill. Although it took 28 hours to debate a Bill with four clauses, that had no effect on the quality or quantity of the legislation, and we lost Prime Minister's questions the next day, because the Opposition obviously did not want their leader to have to face up to the Prime Minister.
§ Mr. Soley
My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) is right about what happened. That is part of the old game-playing method of time wasting, which brought the House into disrepute.
May I return to the core of our debate? When I joined the Modernisation Committee, I was one of those who argued about the way in which the House used time and whether we used it sensibly. I increasingly came to the view that the House of Commons sits much longer than most other Parliaments and works long hours. It may work long hours, but it does not work very effective hours. I submitted a paper to the Modernisation Committee arguing for a parallel Chamber because certain matters that were taken on the Floor of the House needed to be discussed elsewhere so that the attention of this Chamber could be focused on the really big issues of the day. Members on both sides have said that fewer and fewer people watch or attend the Chamber, and perhaps part of the problem is that we debate matters that should not be discussed here. Westminster Hall was a necessary step in dealing with the number of hours that we sit.
We should consider the main tasks of a Member of Parliament. We all know that there is an endless list of tasks, but the three main ones are holding the Government to account, examining legislation and trying to make satisfactory changes to it, and, finally, representing one's constituents and understanding and responding to their needs. Those matters take up an enormous amount of Members' time. If we want to do those three things, but accept that sitting in the Chamber through the night is not a good way of achieving that, we should make sure that we can deliver a means of meeting our aim.
I agree with some of the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich made about Select Committees, and believe that we must examine the procedure governing those Committees because it is not working as well as I would like it to do. The recent report that dealt with the matter included some attractive proposals.
The key point is that Westminster Hall will enable us to have more debates for Back Benchers, which is good in its own right. Those debates should be removed from the Floor of the House, which should focus much more on the major issues of the day. Greater importance should be given to the Committee structure because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish argued, it is profoundly important, and people outside do not realise the amount of work that goes into it.
Enabling Members of Parliament to spend time in their constituencies is also important. Again, an old, almost 19th-century argument that, in reality, died out some time ago, proposed that Members of Parliament should represent their constituents in Westminster, and should 68 not necessarily be in their constituencies. However, especially with modern methods, Members must spend a lot of time in their constituencies, as they need to visit institutes and establishments and talk to their staff to understand the issues.
We must give Members of Parliament time to visit their constituencies. Westminster Hall will enable us to focus debates in the Chamber on more politically contentious issues that draw the attention of the media and the public. We also need, eventually, to redesign the whole parliamentary year so that we can enable Members of Parliament to spend time in their constituencies, examine legislation and hold the Government to account. The 7 o'clock finish on Thursday therefore makes sense, as most people have to travel a long way to their constituencies. Westminster Hall also makes sense, for the reasons that I have given. Ultimately, we must look at other issues such as the way in which Select Committees function.
In other words, we are embarked on a process of change. We have achieved a great deal—I think that we shall achieve much more—with the programming of legislation. That should allow us to examine legislation that is passing through a Committee by taking evidence on it. The Tories introduced the process in the 1980s. As I have said, they stopped doing it because of the perverse interpretation of the time weapon. We all know that Governments are afraid of losing control of the legislative timetable. If that can be brought under control, people will again be allowed to give evidence on proposed legislation. The other necessary step is to take evidence on how an Act is working. The Conservative party might have been grateful for that procedure. Both the Child Support Agency and the poll tax would have been chucked out much earlier if there had been feedback.
The two experiments need to continue. They should be seen as introducing a more effective way of enabling Members to focus their time on holding the Executive to account, to examine legislation and to service their constituents. That is part of a much wider agenda. Although there is a wish to work by consent and agreement in this place, things would be much easier if the Conservative party would not adopt the paranoid view that everything is a wicked plot by the Government. It should understand that some of us have spent enough time in opposition to know what failed and that we wish to try to put things right for Parliament as a whole and not only for ourselves.
§ Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)
According to the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), it is an old-fashioned concept that time is a weapon. The idea that Members, especially Opposition Members, could talk at length and pad out debates to delay the Government—to use the weapon of time—is one that the hon. Gentleman suggests is no longer appropriate. Yet have we not seen a splendid example of that process this evening? Indeed, it is still continuing, as it will for the next three hours. New Labour Members have been asked to come into the Chamber to pad out the debate. I am talking not about some of the old faces, the regular attenders, but those who have been drafted in to pad out the debate so that the debate on the immigration appeals motion does not begin until after 10 o'clock.
69 We know that many Labour Members are concerned about the motion, and the Government do not want it to be debated in prime time. As a result, the current debate will be padded out by Labour Members who perhaps did not have the issues before us at the forefront of their minds when the Government Whips approached them today. The Government are using time as a weapon in this debate.
I look forward to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) returning to the Chamber. I am happy to criticise him in his absence because he made his usual snide remarks at the start of the debate about the number of Members in the Chamber, particularly on the Opposition Benches. He then disappeared.
§ Mr. Bercow
My right hon. Friend is making an extremely important point. Does he agree, for the record, that the hon. Members for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor), for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) and for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase), whatever their other merits or demerits, were assuredly absent at the beginning of the debate?
§ Mr. Maclean
I am not able to say authoritatively who was in the Chamber at the start of the debate. However, I can recognise some of the faces of new Labour Members who have been drafted in.
§ Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)
The proposals of the Modernisation Committee are being debated and I am a member of that Committee. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is entirely proper that I should be present? There is nothing sinister in my presence.
§ Mr. Maclean
Of course it would be appropriate to be present. However, the hon. Gentleman was not in his place at the start of the debate. The Chamber is much fuller now than it was at the start of the debate. It is clear that my name has appeared on the monitor and it has attracted many Members to the Chamber.
§ Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster)
The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said that I was not in the Chamber at the start of the debate. May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I was?
§ Mr. Maclean
I think that that may be so. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) was incorrectly advised on that matter. I may be wrong as well.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush suggested that if we work in this place late at night, turn up and debate things on a Friday, work as late as 10 o'clock on a Thursday night and try to hold the Government to account by means of long debates, we will bring the House into disrepute. Instead, we gave ourselves one of the longest summer recesses in history. If we shorten our working hours, if we are not here on Thursday evenings, if most Members are hardly ever here on a Friday and if we increase our parliamentary allowances, will these factors somehow bring new respect from members of the public? Will they think that we are undertaking our duties more assiduously? If that is one of the best arguments that the hon. Gentleman can advance for proceeding with the experiment, his arguments are feeble.
70 I have heard many Labour Members saying that what is before us is only part of the process and that there is much more reform and modernisation to come. Not one of them has dared to tell the House what in his or her view the further steps will be.
§ Mr. Maclean
That is apart from my neighbour, the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). He elaborated on one important change, but one that the Government will not touch with a barge pole. The suggestion that the Government will routinely subject junior Ministers, the poor lambs, to intense scrutiny in Westminster Hall or anywhere else, of the minutiae of Select Committee reports along the same lines as hybrid Committees along the Committee Corridor where there is an hour of questioning before set-piece speeches begin, is rather fanciful. Nevertheless, it is an idea. It is the only idea that I have heard today that if implemented would make the House more effective and Members more effective.
§ Mr. Forth
Would my right hon. Friend like to speculate on the direction he believes that further modernisation moves might take? Does he agree that it is more than likely that any further so-called modernisation will make life easier for the Government and give Members the opportunity to spend less time in this place while enjoying their increased allowances?
§ Mr. Maclean
My right hon. Friend is right. He makes the same point as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). During the period that she and I have been in the House under all Governments, we have seen them want to ignore the control of Parliament. Parliament and all Oppositions have always been forced to give way to the demands of the Government of the day that they should get through their business more easily with the minimum amount of scrutiny. We have seen a rather exponential twist of the screw in the past few years. The proposals for modernisation take away tremendous powers from individual Members, and they will not make us more effective.
The word "effective" is the most over-used term that I have heard during the debate. Labour Member after Labour Member and Liberal Members have claimed that somehow yet more Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall have held the Executive to account or made us more effective. We are told that Ministers have been subjected to intense scrutiny. Where have these Members been? Can anyone produce a Minister of whatever party who has ever been put under intense scrutiny in an Adjournment debate? Has a Minister ever been held to account in an Adjournment debate?
I suspect that Ministers now do what I did on occasions when I was to respond to an Adjournment debate late at night. I would say to my civil servants, "I think that I have got the gist of this. I have a speech with which I am happy. Don't bother turning up because it is so late at night. You lot go home. We don't need you."
Of course, civil servants say, "But Minister, we need to be there, in case there are questions that you cannot answer." Let us not pretend that in Adjournment debates Ministers are put under such intense scrutiny that they 71 need their civil servants beside them, passing them messages all the time. If there are difficult questions to answer and they are not covered by the brief, or by the parts headed "Lines to take", "If pressed" or "Don't reveal this at any cost", the Minister simply promises to write to the hon. Member.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich made the same point: Adjournment debates end with the Minister winding up, and in those circumstances, there is no way that he can be put under intense scrutiny or pressure.
Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he accept that some of us who have held an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall, with Ministers in front of us—for example, in the debate on the vaccine damage payments scheme—had a success? Ministers have been subjected to scrutiny and pressure, and that issue was settled amicably.
§ Mr. Maclean
The hon. Member for Eccles has only just come into the Chamber. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, in your dreams. Not your dreams, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman's dreams.
By their very nature, Adjournment debates cannot put the Government under any scrutiny whatever.
§ Mr. Maclean
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, although he did not give way to me, as I recall. However, I do not mind giving way, if the hon. Gentleman wants to pad out the debate and help the Labour party avoid his own debate in prime time tonight.
The Government cannot be put under rigorous scrutiny in Adjournment debates. That is possible only at Question Time or in debates on Opposition motions on the Floor of the House. Upstairs, in Standing Committees and in the new Procedure Committee, the Government and Ministers can be held to account in some ways.
§ Mr. Tyler
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but he should not judge everybody else by his own experience. 1 recall him answering an Adjournment debate that I had launched in the Chamber at 7 o'clock in the morning. Everything that he has just said is perfectly true—his answer was totally inadequate. I put that on record. However, had that Adjournment debate taken place with a number of other hon. Members present in Westminster Hall under the present arrangements, he would have been put on the spot.
The right hon. Gentleman clearly has not attended a debate in Westminster Hall. The atmosphere there is entirely different, and the opportunities to extract information there are much greater. I challenge him to tell us what he has achieved in this Parliament through his type of opposition.
§ Mr. Maclean
To answer the last point first, an awful lot of letters from the hon. Gentleman's Liberal friends, begging me to let their useless Bills through. It must have 72 been humiliating for the hon. Gentlemen who wrote, pleading that their Bills were so vital, and arguing that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and I were the only ones in the House blocking such vital legislation.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, that may be one example of what one has achieved. He may not like it and others may not like it, but at least on some of those measures, our opposition forced the Government to deal with Bills in Government time—in prime time. I do not have the ear of the business managers, and it was not my decision to deal with the hamburgers in the parks Bill—a private Member's Bill of minuscule importance—in prime time as part of the Government's programme, apparently because my right hon. Friend and I had made a few observations about it. I will not be sidetracked by the Liberal party into going down that route.
Westminster Hall diminishes the importance and status of the Chamber. We all know that the main business that takes place in Westminster Hall is Adjournment debates. That has certain merit. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), said, it allows us to raise constituency issues. It gives us an outlet for constituency issues.
That may be a legitimate aim in itself, but when we apply for an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall, tell the press about it, have a little press release prepared, go back to our local, parochial press and say, "I'm making a very important speech in Westminster Hall and here it is", let us not pretend, as parliamentarians, that that issue is of national importance. Let us not pretend that we are holding the Government to account, or that we are wringing Ministers' necks till they squeak or squeal. Of course we are not. We are making a point for the media back home in our own patch, which we hope will ultimately get us votes and appeal to our own electorate, our own party or local people.
That is not to diminish some of the issues raised. Some of the issues that hon. Members have raised on Adjournment debates are extremely important to one constituent or to a large number of constituents. Some hon. Members raise international issues in an Adjournment debate, which may be important to many people in overseas countries or to a number of hon. Members.
§ Mr. Maclean
No. I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already, and it was a waste of time.
There is certain merit in letting hon. Members have Adjournment debates—
§ Mr. Maclean
—in the Chamber. The point about Westminster Hall is that it increases the number of Adjournment debates held in Parliament generally. That is its main function. It therefore automatically diminishes the status of Select Committee reports when they are debated there. Hon. Members on Select Committees say that the media are not particularly interested in those debates. Of course not. The media conclude collectively that if a debate is being held in Westminster Hall, it does 73 not matter. Westminster Hall is just a talking shop—the Bongo Bongo parish council room above the police men's caff, so it cannot be very important, can it?
We know that Westminster Hall is not important. I take issue with my right hon. Friend. It is not a glorified village hall. I have a better village hall in Cumbria than that place above the tea room.
§ Mr. Maclean
Not at the moment. I want to let in all the hon. Members who have been drummed in to take part in the debate. I do not want to cause the Government Whips any upset by freezing out the hon. Members who have been asked to speak, although I accept that the hon. Lady has been present from the start.
The Westminster Hall experience is diminishing the status of the House because of the nature of the debates taking place there, and because Cabinet Ministers do not turn up. We have all experienced a Cabinet Minister from both parties over the past few years sometimes taking an Adjournment debate in the House. It was usual for Ministers of State to respond to Adjournment debates in the House. Admittedly, the vast majority were done by Under-Secretaries of State. There is the view that that is the job of junior Ministers—they meet the whingeing delegations, they sign the letters and they do Adjournment debates. One day, when they are important, they decide policy. That is probably the view held in all Governments.
We see in Westminster Hall that every debate is taken by a junior Minister. When every debate is taken by a junior Minister, when the outcome does not matter, the Government cannot pretend that Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber to this place. It is not. Because it is not an alternative Chamber, I support the amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst on changing the title of the person who chairs the meeting in Westminster Hall.
You, Madam Deputy Speaker, are a proper, real Deputy Speaker, and there are two others assisting you. That brings certain responsibilities and duties. It brings a little increase in salary as well, but it is a full—time job, and it causes you to be here on Fridays and all the hours that the House sits. It also means that you cannot sign early-day motions and you cannot vote. That puts you in a rather special category.
Everyone knows the Speaker. The Speaker is always more famous than Deputy Speakers. I expect that as a new incumbent to the post, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will have constituents writing to you asking you to sign early-day motion 5,000,021, or asking why you did not vote on Friday in the debate on embryology. You will have to point out that you are a Deputy Speaker and you are not allowed to do those things. It is the convention of the House. I suspect that you will then receive letters saying, "The hon. Member for so and so is a Deputy Speaker, and he said something and voted."
The Committee Chairmen who act the role of the so-called Deputy Speaker in Westminster Hall are in a unique position: they have the same title as you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but they are allowed to sign early-day motions, to vote and to be political. That is slightly unfair. It creates two classes of Deputy Speaker; it diminishes the 74 status of the Chair in the House, and it must cause confusion among its occupants—it certainly causes confusion among the electorate.
I simply suggest that the title of those who chair debates in Westminster Hall—while it exists—should be Chairman, unless you, Madam Deputy Speaker, or one of the other two Deputy Speakers are in the Chair, in which case the title "Deputy Speaker" should be used.
I am almost ready to conclude my remarks, except to say that I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that there is ample time in this Chamber to hold all the debates that we need on Select Committee reports and Adjournment motions. In the past three weeks, there has been one Adjournment debate after another. Three days of defence debates have arisen on Adjournment motions, and the Government had to run around, dragooning hon. Members to keep the debates going, as did the Opposition because we could not let the Government be seen to say more than we did. We have all had to do our bit to keep Adjournment debates going for no good reason. Many Labour Members are nodding, and other members of the Government cannot nod and affirm what I say.
There is ample time if we plan the programme better. No doubt, in the next few days, there will be a big panic and the Government will say that they must guillotine the Bills coming from the Lords because of the lack of time, yet we have spent the past three weeks finding subjects to discuss to pad out all the days that the Government have allocated.
This Chamber is the place to hold the Government to account. That should be done during proper, full debates with votes taken at their conclusion, at whatever time that may be. Experienced Ministers and Labour Members know that the Government cannot be held to account in this Chamber in an Adjournment debate. When I was a junior Minister, the first time that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) stood up in the middle of what I thought was a brilliant parliamentary answer and told me that, in view of the inadequacy of my reply, he reserved the right to raise the matter in an Adjournment debate, I must admit that I was a bit nervous.
§ Mr. Maclean
I put more work into that Adjournment debate than any other because I knew that that was a real threat. However, that debate still took place on the Floor of the House late at night. If I were a Minister in any future Government and a Member said that he or she would raise an issue in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall, who would care? The media would not cover the debate and no other colleague would attend. It would not matter if the Member made a mess of it. Of course the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) is right to say that Ministers are more relaxed in Westminster Hall, spouting and saying anything that they like, because there is nothing to fear; there is no pressure. They do not suffer the nerves of those who answered questions from the Dispatch Box at 3.13 on Tuesday or Thursday when the Prime Minister would come in and those who are now Government Members would shout, "Shut up. Get the monkey off; we want the organ grinder." That sort of pressure is phenomenal.
75 There is no such pressure in Westminster Hall; it is like being upstairs in Standing Committee, where hon. Members can chat and be happily back-slappy and friendly. That takes away some of the status of the House. Of course, we can be relaxed and reach a concordat in debates on certain issues in the Chamber, but we also need some of the tension that puts Ministers from whichever side on the spot and makes or breaks them at the Dispatch Box. I have taken part in debates where the Government's future hangs on a vote, but there are other debates in which Ministers are put on the spot and in which the outcome of the vote was uncertain, as we saw earlier this week during the Labour rebellion. There may not be many such opportunities, but they do matter.
The more stuff we kick into Westminster Hall, the more the status of the House will be diminished and the public will think it irrelevant. The media already think it irrelevant; the public will think so as well, which is the reason why debates must take place in the Chamber and why I oppose the current modernisation agenda. I suspect that I will oppose the further modernisation proposals when we find out about them.
§ Gillian Merron (Lincoln)
Most of our constituents are interested in the more efficient use of Parliament so that we parliamentarians find a more efficient way in which to run the country that will increase opportunities not only for promotion, but for scrutiny. We must consider how to make Parliament more relevant to our constituents and how to close the gap between the Dispatch Box and the doorstep. My constituents wonder why we have not taken more action to change some of the House's more arcane practices, which get in the way of making Parliament more relevant to them and their lives.
As a Back Bencher who was elected to the House in 1997, I welcome the opportunities provided by Westminster Hall, which represents a new and more effective way of working. I am sure that many Members share that view. I was interested in the comments of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who argued more against Adjournment debates than against Westminster Hall. When he spoke about tension at the Dispatch Box, I wondered whether he had had the opportunity to visit the body zone of the dome and see the large heart pumping under the impact of adrenalin. Clearly, that is how he suggests we could hold Ministers to account more effectively, but that is not what the debate is entirely about.
Westminster Hall is not a distraction; it is an addition to our facilities. It provides an opportunity at a more relevant time to raise pertinent issues, especially those of importance to our constituents. That is why it has not distracted from this Chamber's primacy. I have had an opportunity to initiate two Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall, the first of which was on the economy of the east midlands. As the chair of the east midlands group of Labour Members, I thought it particularly important to secure that debate. It was the first time that we had had a chance to put the spotlight on our region for the benefit of our constituents. I felt, and still feel, that it is right to use Westminster Hall to raise the profile of our region and secure more interest in it—and thus more 76 support for it. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that there have been an extra 134 opportunities for Back Benchers to raise issues of concern with Ministers in Westminster Hall.
The other issue that I took the opportunity to raise related to the passage of rail freight through Lincoln—a problem of particular concern to my constituents, which was exacerbated by Railtrack's plans. On Friday, I again met representatives of Railtrack, the city council, the county council and others to talk about the problem that had been aired in Westminster Hall. The issue had the support of the Minister, who pressed Railtrack to meet us and talk constructively so that we could deal with the problem, which has been a thorn in the side of my constituency for 150 years and which, even now, is holding back the development of the city. That is a good example of the way in which Westminster Hall, the presence of the Minister and the role of the constituency Member of Parliament can all come together.
A minority of Members do not like Westminster Hall. I suggest, therefore, that they do not use it if they feel so strongly, but it is important to show respect to colleagues on both sides of the House who value the opportunities presented by Westminster Hall.
On Thursday sittings, to be truthful, it is not clear to me what all the excitement is about. The reform involves a change of hours, not a reduction. We currently sit between 11.30 am and 7 pm—that is, for seven and a half hours—and we used to sit between 2.30 pm and 10 pm—again, for seven and a half hours. What matters is the way in which we use that time and our Thursdays. The report makes it clear that if one compares the present arrangement for Thursday sittings with that for the last year in which traditional hours applied, during the first year of the experiment the House sat for almost an hour longer and for 40 minutes longer during the second year. That clearly shows that we are seeking not to reduce our hours, but to make better use of our time.
The debate is not about constituency versus Chamber—that is an artificial argument. When we are in the House, are we not ambassadors for our constituencies, and when we are in our constituencies, are we not, among other things, ambassadors for Parliament?
My constituents cannot understand why we cannot introduce changes to use our time in the House more effectively. Recently, on a Friday, I visited Wyman Gordon in Lincoln, which employs more than 170 people in my constituency and is a supplier to the aerospace industry. My discussions with people there are an important piece of work. How can I highlight in the House the successes and challenges of manufacturing industry unless I know what I am talking about? It is as important for me to be in the House raising and highlighting issues about the manufacturing industry as it is for me to be in my constituency finding out what those issues and challenges are. Being a Member of Parliament involves not only speaking, but listening and seeing. The challenge for all hon. Members is to find the right balance.
§ Mr. David Taylor
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the dual role of Members of Parliament, which involves obtaining facts, figures and information about our constituencies that help to shape our speeches in the House. Does she agree that if Conservative Back Benchers under the previous Government had spent more 77 time in their constituencies, they would have found out a little more effectively, and at an earlier stage, about the unpopularity of policies such as the poll tax? Had they done so, such policies might not have led to Lady Thatcher's demise, the 10th anniversary of which we shall celebrate with gusto this Wednesday.
§ Gillian Merron
That is a creative intervention, and I share my hon. Friend's views. May his words be a lesson to us all.
§ Gillian Merron
No, I want to wind up.
I welcome the report, but I hope that we shall introduce more changes in the House that will make Parliament more relevant to my constituents' everyday lives.
§ 7.3 pm
§ Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
What a deeply conservative place the House is.
Our debate, to which I have listened carefully, has contained a true flow of ideas, but there has been a common theme: an acceptance that, somehow, the proposals that we may approve tonight are a great leap forward in our attempts to modernise and to hold the Executive to account. That is a great delusion. I support the motion on Westminster Hall sittings and, with some qualifications, which I shall discuss later, the proposal to end the main debate at 7 pm on Thursdays, but to suggest that the proposals represent a great leap forward is a charade. I shall spell out why that is so.
A feature of the House is the cosy consensus that exists between those on the two Front Benches and between those who took the shilling of Lady Thatcher or the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), and those who no doubt aspire to office under the present Prime Minister. It is time that people stood up and said that the problem with the House is, to a large extent, the choreography between the two Front Benches, the synthetic anger that the two main protagonists throw at each other, the adversarial nature of the House and the fact that we never really examine some of the issues that are thrown up, particularly but not exclusively, by Back Benchers. I hope that my remarks will at least be different from most of those uttered this afternoon.
As the representative of a south-east constituency, I recognise the enormous difficulties faced by hon. Members who represent those parts of the United Kingdom that are far from Westminster. They have a natural desire to reach their constituencies and their duty is to be there. Our arrangements must recognise that.
My second point, which has not been made this afternoon—hon. Members may disagree with many of my arguments, but at least they are new—involves the fact that Parliament tries to do too much, compared with Parliaments in the other principal democracies, most of which are either federal or work in an extensively devolved system. In the Bundestag, the United States Congress and the Westminster-style Parliaments in Canberra or Ottawa, Members of Parliament and Ministers, or their equivalent, have to deal with broad macro-economic policy, social policy, defence and foreign affairs. We deal with broad macro-economic policy, social policy, defence and foreign affairs as well 78 as the sidewalks and other such issues that, although relatively important, are elsewhere dealt with by state legislatures, the Lönder or the Parliaments of Alberta or New South Wales.
We in Parliament try to do too much, and we therefore do it badly. Unless and until both parties come to a consensus about creating a devolved federal United Kingdom, we shall go on saying that we are focusing on and are able to scrutinise the enormous growth of government in this country when we are not. That needs to be understood.
I have already alluded to the fact that I find it nauseating that Members who have sat on the Treasury Bench suddenly undergo a Pauline conversion when they are no longer there. I shall never be guilty of that because I am not going to sit on the Treasury Bench. In the unlikely event of my being invited, I would say no, but it is not going to happen.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
From a sedentary position, my hon. Friend asks me why. I shall tell him. The corrupt nature of British politics involves the fact that those elected to Parliament, friend and foe alike, are told, "We hope it won't be long before you are on the Treasury Bench." This country is obsessed with the fact that promotion in politics involves becoming a Minister. Until we break that mould and elect hon. Members who do not aspire to be Ministers, the power of patronage and the control of Whips will continue. We must break that mould. If, in my small way, I can beak it by saying, as I have said before, that I never, ever want to be a Minister, we might make some progress.
The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), who has left the Chamber, and other Conservative former Ministers referred to this year's inordinately lengthy recess. They are quite right, but they are not free from sin: they acquiesced in similarly long recesses when they were in office. The Labour Government may have gone further, but that does not make it right.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) discussed the question of scrutiny. I listened carefully to his comments, as we should do, especially on this occasion, but I wonder whether he will join me in criticising our inordinately, indefensibly lengthy recess and embrace my remedy, which would apply rubrics to Westminster Hall and our sittings. In my view, the House, or perhaps Westminster Hall, could and should sit in September and October. Parliamentary questions and statements could be dealt with, but not legislation.
Have you noticed, Madam Deputy Speaker, that from time immemorial, the House sits only when the King or Executive of the day want legislation? The Government bear the idea that they must suffer scrutiny as a consequence of legislating, but if they can minimise that scrutiny, they will ensure that the House does not sit. It is time for us to assert ourselves and for hon. Members to say to the Government, whether Labour or Conservative, "We will decide when the House sits; it is our property." That is why I believe that, if a human tragedy or disaster occurs in September or October next year, a statement that would be made at other times should be made 79 immediately. Of course, if there are no votes, hon. Members will not be obliged to turn up. When submarines are disabled in the Mediterranean—I refer to Royal Navy submarines, not those in the Barents sea—there should be a statement in the House of Commons and Ministers should not take refuge in the parliamentary recess and avoid questions.
In parenthesis, I believe that the Government made a mistake by not recalling Parliament during the fuel demonstration, as they could have tackled head on some of the bogus Opposition criticism and exposed the deeply worrying political conspiracy that sought to undermine the Government.
§ Mrs. Browning
The hon. Gentleman is generous. I should like to pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley). If Labour Members see it as part of their job to feed information to the Government of the day, I presume that they were feeding to their Whips and Ministers the anxiety in the country about the price of fuel. If that was the case and they were doing their job, why were the Government surprised and shocked when the fuel crisis began? Should not they have been fully alerted by Labour Members?
§ Mr. Mackinlay
That intervention demonstrates the facile nature of this place. While I was trying to explain why we should ensure scrutiny and accountability, the hon. Lady introduced a partisan view, because of the House's adversarial and gladiatorial shambles of scoring points. I often agree with views expressed by hon. Members from other parties as well with those of Labour Members. Why must there be a continuous sparring that does not address the issue on the Order Paper? I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would like me to do that.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
Will my hon. Friend explain whether he genuinely believes that there is a consensus between his political views and those of the Conservative party? Does he believe that we should always make decisions on that basis? If so, I should tell him that I have been a member of the Labour party since I was 16 and I can honestly say that I do not agree with Conservative Members. Indeed, I sometimes have difficulties with the views expressed by Labour Members, let alone other hon. Members.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
If I have given any impression that I identify with the Conservative party, I am amazed. If you cut me in half, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will see that Labour goes through me like words through a stick of rock. I have supported and sustained my party during bad times as well as good and I bear the scars and bruises to prove it.
We should acknowledge that we sometimes recognise wisdom and prudence in the words of hon. Members who are members of political parties other than Labour. I know 80 that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) will accept that point. That is why I deprecated the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), with whom I was disappointed, for trying to trespass into the fuel dispute when I was using it merely to illustrate the need for Parliament to sit.
I invite hon. Members to consider the following point: genuine modernisation would consist of our taking away from the Government of the day control of the business of the House. Even if I cannot persuade them of that, I ask them to consider the use of Fridays. Business on that day should not be for the usual channels or the Leader of the House; it should be for ordinary Members—Back Benchers—to decide what the business and priorities should be.
§ Mr. Winnick
I hope that I display as much independence as my hon. Friend, or, at least, nearly as much. However, I do not agree with him about taking control of the House away from the Government, although I believe that plenty of time should be allowed for Back-Bench speeches. Does he agree that we were elected as Labour Members to get a Labour Government to achieve a number of aims near to our heart, such as the minimum wage, trade union measures or reform of the House of Lords? I want to give the Government the powers and opportunity to achieve those aims. I have not come to this place as an independent Member of the sort that existed in the 18th or 19th centuries. I come here first and foremost as a Labour Member and I am proud to stand on a Labour party ticket in a general election.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
So am I, but, with respect, I was addressing some comments made when my hon. Friend was not present. They related to Friday sittings. On Fridays, we do not usually consider Government legislation. I believe that the priorities for Friday debates should lie more with the whole House than with the Front Bench.
On Westminster Hall, I should like to comment briefly on the Deputy Speakers. I believe that the present arrangements are unsatisfactory. We should either increase the number of Deputy Speakers or refer to the hon. Members who preside at Westminster Hall as Chairpersons. There is a case for increasing the number of occupants of the Chair in the House of Commons. The Canadian House of Commons has the same number of Speakers and Deputy Speakers as this place, but it also sits a lot less, both annually and daily. There is a powerful case for more Deputy Speakers, but if the present arrangements endure, a distinction must be drawn between hon. Members who preside over proceedings in Westminster Hall and those who preside in the Chamber.
The right hon. Members for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) were dismissive of how Westminster Hall can be and is used. I should like, however, to draw on my experience during the experiment. I am sorry to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich is departing, as I wanted to refer to some of the discussions over which she presided. She will recall occasions when a number of Back Benchers were able to probe Ministers sufficiently to leave them isolated on issues that were not party political but were contentious. Although there had been no pre-planning or preparation, hon. Members from 81 all parties could, almost by instinct, probe the Minister effectively and extract commitments that might otherwise not have been made.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich might have been in the Chair when the Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), was questioned about Gibraltar. He was probed on the deficiencies in existing policy and we were able to extract some commitments which the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, whose report was being discussed, could pursue with greater vigour after that morning's debate.
§ Mr. David Heath
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is making a good point. Often, it is the cumulative effect of debates that has an influence, which is why the increased opportunity to obtain Adjournment debates can affect Ministers. It is when a Minister is required to recite a threadbare brief for the fourth or fifth time and it is clear that he is not committed to it that we get progress. That may have happened in respect of the case of the far east prisoners of war, in which the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and I were involved.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. How we as Back Benchers exploit the opportunities of Westminster Hall is largely down to skill and tactics. That was well illustrated by another debate in which I participated on the future of BBC World television. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), was in a difficult position because he was trying to defend a decision that was about to be taken by the BBC's governors. I am satisfied that the governors' decision was altered as a consequence of that bipartisan, effective and skilfully prosecuted debate by Back Benchers. The Minister was on the receiving end, and we extracted from him and from the governors changes that would not otherwise have been made.
The right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst and for Penrith and The Border were dismissive of the publicity that debates in Westminster Hall sometimes receive in the regional media. It is important for us to be able to articulate in this place concerns that are ventilated in the press. The regional media are often as important as the national media, if not more so. The increased opportunities that Westminster Hall has afforded us has enabled Members of Parliament to express opinions that would not otherwise be aired in the House, but which need to be articulated because they are often unpopular or unpalatable, or represent minority views. If hon. Members can get a slot, they can put them on the record.
I was recently in an isolated position but was nevertheless able to probe the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), about the cover up of police corruption and wrongdoing in the Metropolitan police area, including the unprofessional conduct of its complaints investigation branch. The subject was very important to a constituent of mine, but it also had a wider importance, and I was able to raise that issue on the Floor of the House of Commons, albeit Westminster Hall. I hope that what will flow from that will be to the benefit of my constituent, who has suffered because of the CIB' s arbitrary actions. However, it has also meant that the media have been able to air this important subject, which had to some extent been suppressed by a number of agencies.
82 I want to make a small point about the rubric of Westminster Hall, which I hope the Minister and members of the Modernisation Committee will consider. Debates in Westminster Hall are often detailed and complicated for the Member who is raising the issue. I have never had access to the Dispatch Box, and I do not want it, and I only use notes, but I feel that an equivalent of the Dispatch Box is needed in Westminster Hall for the Minister and for the Member opening the debate, who often need to use extensive notes and documents. It would help them if they had the equivalent of the Dispatch Box, which could be positioned where the Member finds it most comfortable, bearing in mind the nature of that Chamber.
I shall conclude by inviting hon. Members on both sides of the House to step back and consider why we should accept this relatively modern idea that the House should sit only when the Government say so—primarily when legislation is needed. If we do, we would be subordinating our historic duty to provide scrutiny and accountability. I hope that the Modernisation Committee will address that issue in the future.
Westminster Hall is an asset to those of us who want to probe the Executive, but it is nothing more than that. We have it, so we should hold on to it—that is a basic trade union principle. However, we have a long way to go before we can start rebuilding the status of this place and meeting the expectations of the public. Parliament should be a forum and fulcrum for real debate. It does not matter to me whether it is in this Chamber or in Westminster Hall, which I find comfortable—I welcome its intimacy, which enables us to communicate ideas.
There is a danger that we will think that we have done well, but this is only a small increment towards fighting the inexorable power of Members on the two Front Benches to choreograph this place. That is unhealthy for them, for the parties they represent and for parliamentary democracy. I support the continuance of this experiment. We should not lose Westminster Hall, but we have a long way to go.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)
A little while ago, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who is about to leave the Chamber, kindly credited me with having been here since the start of the debate. I must confess to him and to the House that I was not present at the start and I missed some of the opening speeches, for which I apologise. If the trains had been running today at the times and the speed they were when I made my arrangements, I would have been here on time.
§ Mrs. Campbell
My hon. Friend blames privatisation; we know the reason for the rail disruption. I apologise for not being here earlier.
This has been an interesting and instructive debate. Many issues have been aired, and I have listened to the discussion with great interest. I want to pick up on the point made earlier—that things done for the convenience of Members somehow run counter to the democratic process. Things done for the convenience of Members can take away some of the democratic facilities in this place 83 that we need, but not necessarily. I believe that many of the changes made by the Modernisation Committee have proved effective and have made us more efficient when conducting our business.
The added opportunity for debate initiated by Back Benchers—an important point not made previously—is welcome. There have been 108 hours of extra parliamentary time for Back Benchers to raise the issues that they feel are important after being in their constituencies and talking to their constituents. The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) said that we act as the voice of the electorate between elections, and I fervently believe that to be true. On this occasion, I do not disagree with an Opposition Member. What she said adequately reflected my view.
Politicians are often said to be out of touch. We must keep in touch by making constituency visits, talking to constituents and listening to their concerns. We do not have a dual role. I do not think that we have one role in the constituency and another in Parliament: they are one and the same. We need to bring to this place not only our own experience, but that of our constituents. We cannot adequately do so unless we are prepared to spend time in the constituency talking to the people whom we represent about their concerns.
We do not necessarily have a social worker role, although we all get involved in that way. We help people to move from unsatisfactory accommodation, to put up street signs or to get pedestrian crossings. Those are important, but we also listen to people who are suffering because of the way in which legislation is currently working.
I initiated one debate in Westminster Hall about education standard spending assessments, a subject dear to the hearts of my constituents. The debate was excellent; many right hon. and hon. Members spoke in it. Everyone claimed that theirs was the worst funded local education authority. I did not claim that—I know that mine is not the worst funded—but it was an important debate. It was critical of the way in which the Minister for School Standards answered the points. She did it well, but she came under a lot of pressure to explain why there was delay and exactly what the Government were doing to try to correct mistakes by the previous Government.
§ Mr. David Taylor
I was present for part of that debate. Does my hon. Friend agree that one measure of the effectiveness of Westminster Hall debates is that that debate had some success in inching the Government towards a more rational method of local government financing? We have yet to see the results, but we have great faith that the debate played a part in providing a more equitable distribution of grant to LEAs, such as those in Leicestershire, which is at the bottom of the county league table in that respect.
§ Mrs. Campbell
My hon. Friend has taken the opportunity to make a valuable point. The debate enabled us not only to hold the Government to account, but to express a view, which we had been discussing within the fair funding group of MPs—a cross—party group, not a Labour party group alone—and put it to the Minister and hear her response. I am sure that we shall go on pressing that point—I hope in Westminster Hall.
84 It is important that our constituents are able to see that we are linking their experiences with what we say in this place. The decline in the percentage of people voting in local as well as general elections is distressing. We need to be able to demonstrate forcefully and clearly that we are their representatives, are bringing their concerns to this place and are effective in changing the way the Government do things to make their lives better and to increase their opportunities.
I therefore support Westminster Hall debates. They have proved popular for various reasons. One is that they are held when the press and public are awake, aware and can take note of what is said. The last end-of-day Adjournment debate that I secured was held between 2 and 3 am; I do not remember exactly what time it was. I was so blurred by that stage that I could not concentrate on what I was saying. However, few people were aware of it, except the Minister who was put up to reply and, of course, the Hansard writers, whom I gratefully acknowledge and who helped to demonstrate later what had passed between me and the Minister; but Adjournment debates held at that time of the day are no good for the general public. Even the constituent about whom I was speaking did not hear the debate at that time in the morning: he had sensibly gone to bed some hours earlier.
Another reason why I support Westminster Hall debates is that they feel a good deal more accessible to people than the ones in this Chamber. When people are sitting in the public gallery, it is difficult for them to feel part of the debate in quite the same way as they do in Westminster Hall. It brings the immediacy of the debate more closely to the people who have made representations.
The more informal seating arrangements make it much easier to arrive at consensus. I am not one of those people who feels that we should always arrive at consensus—far from it. I have some strong political beliefs and much of the time I disagree completely with the Conservative view, but there are occasions when I do agree. We have points in common. We should be able to arrive at consensus when it is appropriate to do so.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
Before I resigned from the deputy speakership, I sat for many hours in Westminster Hall. May I assure my hon. Friend, because I heard many debates, that the placing of the furniture has absolutely no effect on whether people decide on consensus? The House of Commons, with its normally very tolerant, very flexible response, automatically divides itself into Government one side, Opposition the other and third parties in the middle.
§ Mrs. Campbell
My hon. Friend, if she were to listen to some of the people who advise management on how best to arrive at consensus—
§ Mrs. Campbell
If my hon. Friend were to listen to management consultants and to people who have done much work with businesses and commerce—I think that we should be prepared to learn from those organisations; I do not think necessarily that we are unique in the way we behave—she would realise that it is much easier to reach consensus when the seating is arranged in the way that it is in Westminster Hall. What people dislike about 85 this place is the adversarial nature of the political party debate. If there is consensus to be achieved, we should try to do that.
§ Mrs. Campbell
A great many of my constituents dislike the adversarial nature of the political debate in this place. Yah-boo politics, it has been called. Making party political points for the sake of it turns off most of our constituents; women in particular dislike that sort of debate. I would not want the seating arrangements to be changed in Westminster Hall. The hemispherical shape is good. When people sit facing each other, two sword lengths apart, it feels adversarial and encourages the hon. Lady to make party political points. I do not object to aggressive debate when it is necessary, but in many cases, it is not.
§ Mrs. Campbell
No. I shall make some progress now.
I want to say a few words about Thursday sittings. Two weeks ago, we voted for reforms that will effectively limit debates, so that we normally finish before midnight. To be grateful for finishing at midnight may seem a little peculiar to those outside this place, certainly outside the world of business and commerce, but I am grateful.
Thursday sittings have not reduced the hours in any way, a point that was ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron). They are an experiment that has been a huge success, with the House starting and finishing three hours earlier. Thursday sittings have probably—the statistics show it—extended the hours that we sit.
Before we finished at 7 pm, the Whips were under quite a lot of pressure to get Government business finished at 7, so on many days we started at 2.30 and finished at 7. Now we start at 11.30 am and finish at 7, leading to longer debate. It has helped right hon. and hon. Members in far-flung constituencies to achieve a better balance between their work at Westminster and their work in the constituency. It has helped them to arrive home on a Thursday evening, instead of in the early hours of Friday morning.
I know that the arrangement took some time to bed down. I am a parliamentary private secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry. We have parliamentary questions on a Thursday. When the change was first made, there was great tension over whether hon. Members with questions on the Order Paper would remember to turn up in the Chamber at 11.30 am to ask them, rather than rushing in at 2.30 pm and expecting Question Time to be in progress.
I think, however, that the arrangements have bedded down and been a great success. I hope that, when we vote later today, they will receive support from both sides of the House.
§ Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster)
I should like to make just a few points, the first of which—in reply to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)—is that I was in the Chamber for the beginning of the debate. However, I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, 86 Deptford (Joan Ruddock) and to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for missing a part of their speeches when I slipped out of the Chamber.
I support both motions. With hours being increased after Jopling, a fixed finishing time of 7 o'clock on Thursdays has made it easier for hon. Members to plan. As a Greater London Member, on Thursdays I have been able to do constituency work in the morning. However, I appreciate that the situation is much more difficult for hon. Members who live further afield. Nevertheless, this debate—and all our other debates on modernisation—is all about balance. We have to balance the need for change with the need for hon. Members properly to perform their various responsibilities.
Although I have some reservations about attendance in the Chamber, I do not blame the Government for low attendance. Hon. Members should attend the Chamber more often. As a member of the Procedure Committee and an assiduous attender of debates in the Chamber—I was here for Friday's important debate, for example—I take my responsibilities to the House very seriously and agree that it is disappointing sometimes to see so few hon. Members in the Chamber.
Before being elected to the House, I thought that the House required balanced change to be made consensually. I believe that we are getting there, albeit rather slowly. I therefore support early Thursday sittings and believe that we should continue experimenting with ways to improve participation in the House.
§ Mr. Swayne
Unfortunately, I had an opposed Bill Committee that I had to attend in the middle of the debate. I have returned, however, having been here at the start.
The hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) raises two issues: the first is that the Chamber is often poorly attended, and the second concerns early Thursday sittings. Has it not occurred to him that hon. Members have many things to do in the mornings? Does he anticipate that, if we sit earlier in the day, those matters will be moved to the end of the day, or that they will still be done in the morning and the Chamber will be even emptier than it is now?
§ Mr. Darvill
I wish I knew the answer to that. My own feeling as a new hon. Member—more experienced Members may have a better way of dealing it—is that it is very difficult to balance the various demands made on my time. In an ideal world, we would be able to spend more time both in the Chamber and outside it serving our constituents.
Again, the issue is how to strike the right balance. I do not think that Parliament has the balance quite right. My constituents, and organisations in my constituency, demand my time for all types of reasons, and they may not appreciate how hon. Members' time in the House is 87 organised. So it is also a matter of educating people about how we organise our time. I think that reorganising our sitting times and shorter recesses might help in that process. However, I am not sure of the answer.
In the past 20 or 30 years, there has been a drive for a more consumer-friendly society in which we, as hon. Members, are much more available to everyone. However, it is difficult to achieve that objective while doing the work that we have to do in the House. As I said, I do not blame Governments for that change. I think that hon. Members are responding in various ways to changes in society.
I have attended and spoken in various debates in Westminster Hall. The debates have covered a wide variety of subjects, and they have been very worth while. I disagree with the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) that we would have had sufficient time in the House to have those debates. The Westminster Hall experiment has extended the list of subjects for debate, not only constituency debates initiated by one or two hon. Members, but more general debates.
The Westminster Hall debate on community legal service partnerships, for example, was held little more than one year after passage of the legislation establishing it, and it enabled hon. Members to speak from their own constituency experience about how the partnerships were working in their areas. Such a review was useful both for hon. Members and for the Minister, who took a note of the experiences described.
In a constituency debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) raised the issue of Uno plc. Various hon. Members on both sides of the House had constituents who had suffered in that case. Prior to the debate, the company liquidator held a meeting which hon. Members could attend. However, I doubt whether the meeting would have been called so urgently without the prospect of the debate. It demonstrated some of the benefits of Westminster Hall.
I support the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) on using European Standing Committee debates as a model for debates scrutinising Select Committee reports. My own view is that Select Committee reports are very important, that Select Committees need to be enhanced and reinforced, and that examination of their reports using the European Standing Committee model would enable greater scrutiny.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
I remember having a conversation with a junior Minister in the former Government in which he said, "I have been up since 4 o'clock this morning swotting up on the subject of this debate." Later, he said that such debates were the most penetrative parliamentary procedure that he knew of to hold hon. Members and Ministers to account. We therefore have it from a former Minister that that model really works as my hon. Friend and I are suggesting.
§ Mr. Darvill
I am a member of European Standing Committee C and participate in all its debates. The hour or so that is allowed for questions in those debates is both penetrating and worth while. I urge the Modernisation Committee to consider using that model in the consideration of Select Committee reports.
88 The use of such a model is particularly important because of resource accounting and budgeting, which will affect the way in which Select Committees review the Departments that they shadow. As time passes, the provision of additional information on annual accounts will make Select Committees' work more penetrating and give Select Committees and the House a powerful scrutiny role. If those reports were debated more extensively, using the procedure suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington, Back Benchers would have an additional scrutiny weapon.
There is a modernisation package, but I think that we should consider further modernisation. We should certainly consider greater pre-legislative scrutiny, which could be done in Select Committees. I should also like to see improved procedures for considering private Members' legislation. I should also like changes to the parliamentary year. All those changes need to be considered; we need to modernise and improve our procedures. Although the changes that we are debating today are a part of that process, they should be only the start.
§ Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)
It has been suggested that time is sometimes abused in this Chamber by hon. Members who perform the equivalent of reading out the telephone directory to prolong debate. The powers that be who decided to prolong this evening's debate, whoever they are, did rather better than that. In a step forward from reading names in the telephone directory, we now have the spectacle of Labour Members reading the lengthy debates in which they have taken part in Westminster Hall. Personally, I prefer the telephone directory.
It is, however, a novelty to take part in a debate in this Chamber that has not been guillotined. Perhaps it is better, therefore, to hear the equivalent 'of the telephone directory being read out by Labour Members than to have our debate curtailed.
§ Mrs. Laing
No. I will give way to almost anyone else, but the hon. Gentleman was not here during the debate, so I will not give way to him.
Conservative Members support the continuation of the experiments involving Thursday morning sittings and those in Westminster Hall, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said in her opening speech. Modernisation, however, is a dangerous concept if it is not based on principle. Change for the sake of change, merely on a whim or for the sake of fashion, is not good. The principle that we ought to apply when considering changes to the way in which the parliamentary system works should be whether the changes would strengthen Parliament. If they would, they are good; if they would not, they are not good.
I should like to quote two right hon. and hon. Ladies who, although not of my political persuasion, are ladies for whom I have the greatest respect. The first is the 89 former Speaker of the House of Commons, the right hon. Betty Boothroyd, who said in her valedictory speech:Let us make a start by remembering that the function of Parliament is to hold the Executive to account…That is the role for which history has cast the Commons.—[Official Report, 26 July 2000; Vol. 354, c. 1114]
§ Mrs. Laing
I dare say that that is true.
The other is the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who made some excellent points in this debate. Last month, she said:Parliament is one of the most important things in our democratic country. We must protect it; we must improve it. We must take back the power that others seek to take away from us.—[Official Report, 23 October 2000; Vol. 355, c. 34.]This debate should be about ensuring that Members of the House of Commons keep their power, however much others try to take it from us. I particularly wished to cite those two ladies because I want to show that large parts of this debate attract cross-party agreement, and are far from being adversarial, as some Labour Members tried to argue.
Change to the House should not be made for the convenience of Members. If one wants to get home early and to have a convenient life, one should not become a Member of Parliament. If, however, one wants to dedicate oneself to the community that one represents, one should be a Member of Parliament.
Changes should not be made to the hours of the House to advance the role of the Palace of Westminster as an object of architectural interest or a theme park for tourists. Sometimes that seems to be happening. We welcome tourists, our constituents and others who are interested in the democratic process, but they should not take priority when we arrange our proceedings. Whenever school parties from my constituency visit the House and are taken to see proceedings in Westminster Hall, I always tell them that it is not the real Parliament. I do not want them to go away with the wrong impression or to think that the atmosphere in the hemicycle of Westminster Hall is anything like the real atmosphere of parliamentary debate. It is not.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said that too many changes had been made without looking at what lay behind them. I entirely agree. He argued that Cabinet Ministers should be brought to Westminster Hall to respond to debates and be held to account. I would argue, however, that debates requiring an answer by a Cabinet Minister should always be held in this Chamber.
Unusually, I found myself agreeing with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)—I do not want to worry him—in so far as he said that, in principle, we should not make changes for the convenience of hon. Members and their staff, or in order to make the House more family-friendly. He is right. We should take those factors into consideration, but they should not be our first priority.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall will be pleased that I disagree with him entirely on another point. I cannot understand his wish to take the confrontation out of politics—a wish also expressed by the hon. Member 90 for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) and many of her hon. Friends. The exploration of ideas has, from Plato and Socrates onwards, been achieved by considering one side of an argument and then another, until the whole idea has been thoroughly thrashed out.
Labour Members have been talking for weeks, in this Chamber and elsewhere, about taking the confrontation out of politics, but they have not explained why, or how, that would make the political process any better. If they are afraid to argue, they do not have to do so. They can just sit down and keep quiet. However, if they wish to serve their constituents, they should be brave enough to get up and argue. Politics is a confrontational business. If it were not, we should have a one-party state. That would not serve democracy or the people of the United Kingdom. I doubt that consensus would be more likely if the hon. Member for Deptford sat next to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). I cannot imagine such a situation lasting for more than a minute or two.
§ Mrs. Laing
I am sure that my hon. Friend is being gallant in saying that.
The hon. Member for Deptford seemed confused about the balance between constituency duties and parliamentary duties. Are we our constituents' representatives in Parliament, or Parliament's representatives in our constituencies? I would argue that we are the former: only the Member of Parliament can represent the views of his or her constituents in the House. Many people can carry out other duties in our constituencies. It is not our job to look at the inconvenient location of bus stops. That does not mean that we do not have to know about it, but we do not have to devote our time to looking at those locations. It is our job to be here. Councillors and others can do those other jobs. We need to know about them, but only we can be here in this Chamber.
§ Joan Ruddock
I do not remember saying anything about bus stops, and I do not think that any of my hon. Friends mentioned them. We have said repeatedly that it is a matter of balance, and that we need to hear our constituents' views before representing them here. The arrangements that have been made have led to more, not fewer, sitting hours.
§ Mrs. Laing
I am not suggesting that anyone mentioned bus stops today, but the hon. Lady and other Labour Members went through so many tedious examples of what they do in their constituencies that I cannot remember what they were. Bus stops are merely one example. If she cannot tell the difference between a literal example and a mere point, she is not paying attention to the debate—although I give her credit for having been here throughout.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) made some excellent points. He knows the subject as well as, if not better than, anyone else in the House. I share his concern about paragraph 13 of the report, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, will confirm that the Government will not transfer business of substance from this Chamber to Westminster Hall.
My right hon. Friend is right about the importance of restoring Prime Minister's Question Time to Tuesdays and Thursdays, instead of just Wednesdays. Thursdays 91 should be restored to their full importance, because we must be concerned with holding the Government to account and not with the convenience of Members.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) is right about the interaction of our role here and our meetings with people in our constituencies, but I disagree profoundly with her about abolishing Fridays. The less time we spend here, the less scrutiny there is of the Government and the more powerful become the Executive and the Prime Minister, to the diminution of Parliament and the people.
If Labour Members are lulled into thinking that it is a good idea to spend less time here and more in their constituencies, let them think what it would be like for them to have a Government with whom they disagree and whom they would like to hold to account. I assure them that the Labour party will not be in power for ever—or indeed for much longer. They smile at one another because they do not believe me. They think that the present Prime Minister will stay on for ever. They cannot imagine what it would be like to disagree with a Government. They are irresponsible in their outlook on what Parliament is all about.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made many good points, one of which was his warning of the danger of a one-day-a-week Parliament and the consequent diminution of the democratic process. The less debate and holding to account that we have in this Chamber, the less powerful Parliament becomes and the more the democratic process is undermined.
The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) made some puzzling points. I am not sure what he means when he says that hon. Members with marginal seats have greater constituency duties to undertake. I believe that he said that a Member of Parliament's constituency duties increase as we approach a general election. Is he suggesting that the purpose of constituency work is to gain votes? That is an outrageous suggestion. All Members of Parliament, at all times, have duties to their constituents, regardless of the approach of general elections or how marginal their seats are.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
The answer is in the words of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). That is precisely what he said in relation to calling debates in the House of Commons.
§ Mrs. Laing
My right hon. Friend could not possibly have made such an outrageous suggestion. I was rather surprised that the hon. Gentleman made it, because he is one of the few Labour Members who uphold parliamentary democracy and dare to speak out against the Government.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) correctly emphasised a neglected role of Parliament: to act as the voice of the electorate between elections. She made some sincere, considered and practical suggestions, which I hope the Liaison Committee will take into account.
92 The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) must have had some reason for making the speech that he made, but I have a feeling that it had very little to do with his concern for Westminster Hall. He made an unusual confession: that he had changed his mind on one point. I must say that I agree with his previous position. As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich rightly said, time is an effective weapon for an Opposition or for anyone who wants to hinder the Government's progress in any course.
It is strange that the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush started making a short and to-the-point speech about how time is not a valid weapon and then began to filibuster, for some reason unknown to me. We all know that he is perfectly capable of making a good point succinctly. He made his points at the beginning of his speech and then spoke for more than 20 minutes about how one should not use time as a weapon.
§ Mrs. Laing
I noticed that the hon. Gentleman gallantly gave way to Labour Members who had very little to say.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) made some excellent points. He has devoted much of his great energy to holding the Government to account and he is absolutely right to say that that cannot be done properly and effectively in an Adjournment debate.
All Members of Parliament have the right to speak, but they do not have the right to have attention paid to their words, especially if they do not have the courtesy to be here at the beginning of a debate, which has been the case with many Labour Members today. The irrelevancies of the hon. Members for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) showed clearly that they had not listened to the debate. I do not know why they came in two hours after the debate had started and made irrelevant speeches.
§ Mr. Forth
I want to help my hon. Friend. Does she accept the possibility that, halfway through the debate, the Chamber mysteriously filled up with the hon. Members whom she mentioned because the Government decided that they wished to prolong debate to minimise the time available for the following debate? That is precisely what the hon. Member for shepherd's pie said should not happen. [Laughter.] Does my hon. Friend see the contradiction between the one thing and the other?
§ Mrs. Laing
I most certainly do see the contradiction between one and the other. It is amazing that Labour Members do not see the contradiction or, indeed, the value of holding the Government to account.
93 My right hon. Friend reminds me that at the weekend I spoke to a gentleman with some experience of public affairs, although he is not a party political gentleman. He asked me a simple question: why do the hundreds of Labour Back Benchers not hold the Government to account instead of kowtowing to them? I tried to explain why, but I fear that if I repeated that explanation here, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would call me to order. I would not be sorry to do so but it would be ungallant and perhaps libellous.
In contrast to the irrelevancies that I have mentioned, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) spoke honestly and without fear. I do not always agree with what he says but I think that we all appreciate that his contributions add substance as well as passion to the debate. Although he says that he does not want to be a Minister, many Conservative Members hope that he might be elected to another position, that at some point he might want such a position and that he will continue to hold the Government to account in whatever role he might, hypothetically, have in future.
This debate has not been about secondary matters of organisation and management, unlike the waffle from some hon. Ladies on the Labour Benches. It is difficult to be a woman in politics when one is grouped with people who pathetically say that women cannot argue long into the night, that they cannot hold their own in an argument against men, that they do not want to be adversarial and that they want to agree with everyone all the time. That view undermines the position of women who have fought to have their voice heard in politics—not those who have been slipped in easily at election time. That will show in future. I say that with some vehemence because I mean it. Some of us deal with this all the time, and it really is rather pathetic.
This debate is not about organisation, management, consensus or the way in which the chairs are arranged—it is far more important than that. It is about democracy, and there is no more important matter for discussion. I sincerely hope that the Leader of the House will take into account all the serious points that have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) on her first outing from the Front Bench, although 1 did not agree with all she said. I have followed her career with interest. She has been an influential special adviser and a sparky Back Bencher who then took the silence of the Whip's Bench. If anyone thinks that we are in for consensual politics across the House, they are mistaken.
To come straight to the point, the House is being asked to agree the third and fourth reports of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) told us that the reports had been agreed by the Committee. He has played an influential role in the Select Committee and his wise advice, which does not always go down well with some of his colleagues, will be sorely missed. I also want to put on record my thanks and those of the House to every member of the Modernisation Committee. They do a difficult task, as those who have heard tonight's debate will know.
94 Although the Select Committee reports have been agreed, there has been substantial disagreement across the House. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made it clear that they intend to divide the House. I welcome that—I think that it is very healthy. The debate has been characterised by different groups of Members—the radicals and reformers, the radicals and revolutionaries, the reformers and the reactionaries. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) said that he would break the mould—a real radical comment. He told us that he did not want a Front—Bench position, but my impression was that his speech reflected the fact that he was running for another kind of elected office. I wish him well. I also wish my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) doubly well in that respect.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) did not call herself a radical; she called herself a reformer.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am rather alarmed at the way in which the hon. Gentleman equates reactionary positions with Conservative positions. If he has studied political philosophy, which I feel sure that he has done, does he not accept that there is a significant difference between the two? Many of us who take a Conservative view and a sceptical view of the changes proposed do so because we subscribe to Lord Falkland's dictum that that which it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change.
§ Mr. Tipping
The hon. Gentleman and many of his right hon. and hon. Friends expressed reactionary views in a radical way. I will turn to the reactionaries in a minute. However, first I want to talk about the reforming instincts of my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford. She has been influential in bringing about change, in an evolutionary way—the kind of evolutionary change that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) talked about. I note that during the course of the debate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) felt, in general terms—although they did not agree with every dot and comma—that the reports offered the right kind of evolutionary approach.
Let me spell out the difference between the reformers and the reactionaries. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush said that change needs to be seen as part of a package of reform which certainly will not end with the reports before us today. That is my view. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) told us that we could go back to where we were. I do not think that there is any turning back in the process—change will continue to occur.
A number of right hon. and hon. Members have used the debate to address wider issues, such as the use of private notice questions and private Members' Bills, the parliamentary calendar and extended sitting hours. Those are indeed important issues, to which, in the course of time and our evolutionary approach, we shall return.
As both reports make clear, Westminster Hall and Thursday sittings are experiments that the House is being asked to extend for the lifetime of this Parliament and the first Session of the next one. The new Parliament will then take a decision on the way forward. I believe that the way forward on Thursday sittings and Westminster Hall is the evolutionary and progressive way.
95 During the debate few Members—with two or three honourable exceptions—took issue with Thursday sittings. Most Members favour the Thursday experiment, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) put matters well by saying that while Members of Parliament are asked to perform different roles, those roles are complementary—the one feeds off the other. Some hon. Members try to be prescriptive about those roles, but I do not believe that there is a single rubric for being a Member of Parliament. There are 659 of us, and one size does not fit all. Indeed, as I glance around the Chamber, I can see my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy), a leading colleague in the Whip's Office, who will know that one size does not fit us all. He is a big political bruiser, himself, but I am always keen to acknowledge his valuable work, and I do like Thursday evenings off. A balance must be struck between doing our work here at Westminster and in our constituencies.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, among others, expressed concern about Thursday being a normal sitting day. The right hon. Gentleman pointed out that many parliamentary groups now meet on Tuesday or Wednesday, and the focus of the parliamentary week has in a sense fixed on those days. He was involved in producing the report, so he knows that the House has in fact sat longer since the Thursday experiment was introduced. That is an important point: more time is being given for debate on Thursdays, and the issues debated remain as important as they were previously. There has been no diminution in the business that the House is being asked to consider on Thursdays. However, the experiment continues, and we shall have to keep the matter under review.
Westminster Hall has been a more contentious matter. My own view is that it has provided many valuable opportunities for Back-Bench debates. Hon. Members on both sides have commented on the value of those debates.
§ Mr. David Taylor
How did my hon. Friend view the comments of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who traduced Back Benchers who raised local and regional issues as whingers from Bongo Bongo? Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that that was insufferably patronising, and that if there were a parliamentary prize for cant and arrogance, the right hon. Gentleman ought to deserve several nominations?
§ Mr. Tipping
My hon. Friend makes his point admirably—subtly would perhaps be the right word—without my having to comment on it.
There has been a general welcome for the greater opportunities for Back-Bench debate in Westminster Hall. Hon. Members should have an opportunity to raise debates that are important to them. Some Members have suggested that debates are shuffled off to Westminster Hall, or are not controversial. 1 remind the House that the middle east, genetically modified organisms, climate change and Sierra Leone have all been discussed in Westminster Hall. They may not all be party political issues, but they are all extremely important social and economic issues that need careful attention and much debate.
The Westminster Hall experiment also gives hon. Members an opportunity to raise topical matters, and I am delighted to learn that the right hon. Member for 96 South-West Norfolk will debate the European Union sugar regime tomorrow. That is an interesting issue. International influences, such as that of the World Trade Organisation, will have real effects on farmers in Norfolk and Nottinghamshire. I may not be able to be with the right hon. Lady throughout her debate tomorrow, but I shall certainly follow it extremely closely.
§ Mrs. Shephard
If the Minister cannot be present throughout the debate tomorrow, may I excuse his absence to the Chair and pray his support in aid?
§ Mr. Tipping
The right hon. Lady may certainly pray in aid my support on an important issue. International pressures will force real changes on farmers who are struggling to make a living in Nottinghamshire and Norfolk, and she will provide a good demonstration of Westminster Hall's topicality and the way in which Members may use opportunities to raise issues of real importance. Scoffing mention has been made by some Members to the effect that Westminster Hall is all for the press, radio and other media in our localities. I merely echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge that it is important that we should be seen to be the voice of our constituents here in Parliament.
§ Mr. Bennett
When we had Wednesday morning sittings, a debate such as that referred to by my hon. Friend would have been replied to by a Cabinet Minister. If the Government are keen to make Westminster Hall significant, would it not be better if that debate, or the one on the middle east, had had a response from a Cabinet Minister?
§ Mr. Tipping
I was interested when my hon. Friend made a similar point earlier. As far as I can recall—I may be wrong and will check the record—no Cabinet Minister replied to a Wednesday morning debate. Scoffers have said that only Under—Secretaries reply in Westminster Hall, but Labour Members have confirmed that many Ministers of State have replied to debates there.
I also emphasise that real probing takes place in Westminster Hall. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) spoke movingly of the importance that his debate on vaccine—damaged children had had, and we have heard other examples this evening.
§ Mr. David Davis
I am sure that the Minister does not intend to mislead the House, but am equally sure that on a couple of occasions at least under the previous Government, Cabinet Ministers answered debates on the Floor on Wednesdays.
§ Mr. Tipping
That may well be the case, but the right hon. Gentleman, who is a fair man, will have heard me say that I would check the record. It was not my personal recollection that Cabinet Ministers had done so. As Westminster Hall becomes more topical, probing and significant, it may well be that Departments will make different judgments about who should represent them there.
We have taken an important step forward with Westminster Hall; much has been achieved, but we can improve matters and do better—Westminster Hall is still a fledgling. I am not one of the scoffers in this Chamber; I know the real importance of bringing up in this place issues that are essential to my constituents and to 97 my region. We must engage in debate and probe issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) told us how she had been able to make progress in relation to rail freight passing through her constituency as a direct result of a debate held in Westminster Hall.
§ Mr. Maclean
I am grateful to the Minister for his usual courtesy in giving way. I am one of those who has scoffed that many Members seek debates in Westminster Hall in order to obtain local media coverage. In order that I may be wholly disproved and so that I may apologise to the House, will the Minister consider a proper experiment whereby the live radio and television feeds are switched off for six months? We could thus make an assessment of the issues raised by hon. Members and of the number of Members who apply for debates. If the radio feed were switched off for a while, we might be able to come to a proper, fair assessment.
§ Mr. Tipping
The right hon. Gentleman is another example of those who want to turn the clock back. He will recall that when Westminster Hall was established, there was no live feed; it was installed because of demand from hon. Members and from the regional press— [Interruption.] Hon. Members say that of course it is right that Members want to be in Parliament—in Westminster Hall—showing that they can take up causes and achieve things for their constituents. I am amazed that there are hon. Members in the Chamber who do not share that view.
Some of my hon. Friends referred to how the Westminster Hall agenda is drawn up. A third of the debates are initiated by Back Benchers on an Adjournment, with topics selected through the Speaker's Office. We have made changes to ensure that more Select Committee reports are discussed in Westminster Hall. Today's debate and the reports of the Modernisation Committee have shown that Adjournment debates on a Government motion, agreed with the Opposition, have not gone well. We have learned from that and we shall reduce such debates.
Hon. Members have drawn attention to the need to make better use of Select Committee reports. We have benefited from the presence at today's debate of several influential Select Committee Chairmen. They will acknowledge that some reports are good, but that some are not so good. They will also acknowledge that the current Select Committee system—together with the extra opportunities offered for debate in Westminster Hall—permit those Committees to call Ministers to account.
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish made it clear that, if a Select Committee report does not receive the response from the Government for which the Committee had hoped, the Minister can again be called to give evidence before the Committee. That is a good and important way forward. No one should pretend that the decision that we are taking will deny Select Committees extra opportunities; in fact, we are offering reinforcement.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest asked me to confirm that the Government have no intention of taking substantive business in Westminster Hall. She will have noted the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House during earlier exchanges. The first report of the Modernisation Committee and the reports before the House today reinforce that point.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
The hon. Gentleman spoke in glowing terms of the highly 98 important debate on the sugar industry to be initiated in Westminster Hall tomorrow by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). Will he set an example by asking his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to reply personally to that important debate? That would reinforce the importance of Westminster Hall and of the debates that take place there.
§ Mr. Tipping
I give credit where it is due. The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk deserves to have her name mentioned in dispatches for raising that important issue. There are sugar-beet farmers in my constituency and I too have pressed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Minister. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) pointed out, sometimes we have to take a drip-drip-drip approach—a cumulative effect—to bring about change.
Westminster Hall offers many opportunities. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire asked about access to Westminster Hall for people with a disability. Work will start in the summer of 2001, after work on the Westminster Hall cafeteria. I was also asked to ensure that the proposed work came in on time and at cost. A sum of £4,000 has been agreed for the new layout; it will be a marvel if we achieve our timetable, but I am determined that we shall do our best. I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton on that matter.
A number of other suggestions were made. For example, it was suggested that the speakers in Westminster Hall should have lecterns and that the Hansard reporters should have better facilities. The Modernisation Committee has considered or is considering those issues.
My good friend, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, said—I paraphrase his remarks—that it is good to talk. That is so, and Westminster Hall gives us opportunities to talk. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that the informal discussions that take place around the Palace of Westminster are important and influential. I was once nearly thrown out of university for suggesting that I had learned more in the bar than I had ever learned in the lecture theatre. I shall not make a similar claim now, but I inform colleagues that I will be in the bar later if anyone wants to have an informal discussion with me. I am open to offers.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ That this House approves the Third Report on Thursday Sittings (HC 954) and the Fourth Report on Sittings in Westminster Hall (HC 906) of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons.