HC Deb 06 March 2001 vol 364 cc145-8
42. Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)

What progress there has been on programming of legislation. [150778]

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

Since the House agreed to the new Sessional Orders on 7 November 2000, most Government legislation in the Commons has been programmed. The process is experimental and the forms of programme motion and the resolutions of Programming Sub-Committees have varied according to circumstances.

Dr. Stoate

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. She will know that the programming of legislation has enabled hon. Members, particularly those of us who can commute from their constituencies, to be far more effective in combining the dual role of representing our constituents and calling the Executive to account. What plans does she have to extend the scheme, and can she suggest ways of making the parliamentary timetable even more efficient?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right to say that programming legislation, as was intended, enables hon. Members to use their time more efficiently to the benefit of their constituents. It is also one of the many ways in which we can gradually improve the transparency of the running of this place, which again will be of assistance to hon. Members in using their time effectively. As my hon. Friend said, it offers advantages to all hon. Members in that respect, but it also offers particular advantages to the Opposition, should they be wise enough to take them, because it enables them to have a real say in which debates are taken at what time.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Is the President of the Council suggesting that she is wholly satisfied with the programming of legislation, or does she recognise the need to make some amendments? Does she not acknowledge that it is a little absurd for the House to have to decide a programme before we know which hon. Members will be on the Committee considering the legislation concerned? Does she not acknowledge that if the system is to be credible and acceptable to the House, Opposition parties must have a substantial say in determining which legislation should be programmed, and what the priorities and time allocation should be?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I do not accept that there are huge problems, although there is a need to look at particular issues and try to resolve any difficulties that arise. That is indeed under consideration. I do not accept—and I think that there is a genuine misunderstanding in the House about this—that some innate problem is caused by the Government publishing at the earliest possible opportunity, on Second Reading, the date at which, for the management of their overall business and the programme of legislation, the Government intend a Bill to finish consideration in Committee. Every Government have done that in precisely the same way; the framework is known to the House. To be perfectly blunt with the hon. Gentleman, the only potential losers are the Government. We have known all along—as every Government know what they have in mind—when we expect Bills to come out of Committee, but until now the information has never been shared with the rest of the House. Certainly we believe that there is room to create even more opportunity for input from hon. Members.

It may be that over time, if the present resolution of the House is carried over, all legislation will be programmed. Equally, we may find that that is not necessary and that will give us more flexibility and room for manoeuvre, but we have to have that fall-back position so that we can manage the business of the House effectively for the benefit of all hon. Members.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Does my right hon. Friend not have a scintilla of doubt about what she has just said? Does it not occur to her that in fact the deliberate programming of all legislation would not only be anti-democratic, but would do exactly the opposite of what she has declared? Back Benchers have the right to raise individual points on behalf of their constituents, but they are totally constrained by programming. Any suggestion that the Government somehow have the right to slot legislation through the House without proper consideration is not in the interests of either the electorate or the Labour party.

Mrs. Beckett

I am never without doubt about a range of issues, and I am always prepared to listen to other points of view, but my hon. Friend is a very experienced Member of Parliament and I know that she is perfectly well aware that to pretend that programming is a new invention by this Government is, frankly, rubbish. To my knowledge, the issue of programming, and the advantages that it can offer to the House, have been under discussion for 10 years at least. The matter was discussed by the Jopling Committee.

I accept my hon. Friend's point that it is perhaps a pity that the Government have found it necessary in this experiment to consider programming all legislation, but she knows as well as I do that that is because of the process that I have described as working to rule, which has led to the inefficient use of the House's time. If my hon. Friend subscribes to the notion that there were halcyon golden days in the past when it was open to Back Benchers to use the House's time as they chose, when Governments never had target dates for Committees and never made sure that such targets were stuck to, she is describing a process that has not been in place while she and I have been Members of this House.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The new regime means that great swathes of legislation are going through the House with wholly inadequate scrutiny, and the new system of synchronised voting on Wednesdays is bringing the House into disrepute, but the Labour party does not seem to be getting into its collective bed any earlier than previously. Against that background, would it not be better to scrap the experiment and start again?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that that is not the case. Swathes of legislation are not going through the House with inadequate scrutiny. Well prepared legislation is going through on a perfectly ordinary time scale—

Sir George Young

indicated dissent.

Mrs. Beckett

It is no good the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head. If he looks at the pattern of dates for Bills coming out of Committee under previous Governments, he will find no charge whatever—other than that this Government are starting to introduce legislation that requires less Government amendment than was the case under his Government.

As for the notion that the time allowed has been inadequate, I believe that it has been perfectly par for the course. On at least two occasions this Session, a Bill has been reported from Committee slightly before the due date originally set.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

The right hon. Lady knows that the changes to Standing Orders were forced on the House by the dreaded Modernisation Committee—which she chairs—even though the Opposition published a minority report saying that they did not support the move. The experiment has been a shambles. It is no good the right hon. Lady saying that all is well: I give her examples at business questions every week of where the system is failing. I am sure that the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) is not alone in not understanding that the role of Members of Parliament of all parties is not to do their shopping in their constituencies during the week, but to be here in the House scrutinising legislation and holding the Executive to account.

If the right hon. Lady is going to introduce proposals to improve the working of programme motions, will she confirm that she will have the courtesy to bring them to the Floor of the House for further deliberation by the whole House? In that way, at least the process can be a tad democratic.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) seems to have forgotten that the current experiment was brought to the Floor of the House, and that the decision to implement it was made by the whole House. She said that the decision was forced on the House by the "dreaded Modernisation Committee", but she has either overlooked or forgotten the contents of the minority report that she keeps citing. That report did not say that programming was a bad thing, nor that it was damaging to democracy. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) alleged that programming somehow deprived Back Benchers of their rights, but the minority report did not say that either. It said that to programme all legislation was a substantial and major step which the Opposition could not support.

However, before either the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton or I served on it, the Modernisation Committee agreed unanimously that we should stick with the regime under which all major legislation was programmed. Opposition Members appear to be suffering from a collective failure of memory when they think that they have never supported the programming proposals. That is not the case: they have supported them.

I entirely agree—and have long argued, before the hon. Lady's time in her present post—that it is a pity that the Government have found it necessary to put in place a framework that allows us to programme all legislation. However, if the House deals with its business efficiently and well, and takes the time that is allowed for scrutinising legislation to do so, there is no reason why we should not see a better conduct of business without quite that degree of rigour.

As for the hon. Lady's remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate), I know that Conservative Members are worried about the much better attention paid by Labour Members to their constituencies, but that is their problem.

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