HC Deb 11 March 2003 vol 401 cc159-61
28. Bob Spink (Castle Point)

What recent representations he has received on the modernisation of the House of Commons. [101897]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

I continue to receive a number of representations from Members of Parliament and of the public. It would be a fair summary that nearly all possible views on modernisation are expressed in those representations and I regret that they are not all mutually consistent.

Bob Spink

In the light of our experience last evening when a number of clauses were passed without any debate at all, does the right hon. Gentleman not find that the mood of the House has changed substantially? Would it not be in all our interests for this matter to be brought to the House for a vote, perhaps in September or at the end of this Session, rather than waiting until the end of this Parliament before we revisit it?

Mr. Cook

When the House considered this matter in October and took its decision, it took its decision for the rest of this Parliament. That seems to me an entirely fair period for which to reach an assessment. However, I must correct the hon. Gentleman about his comments on yesterday. There was no reduction in the time for debate on the Local Government Bill or any other Bill yesterday. The Bill received the same amount of debate as it would have done under the previous hours, by virtue of the fact that the debate continued until 10 o'clock, it being a Monday. However, the Bill would have received the same amount of debate time had it been a Tuesday or Wednesday, stopping at seven o'clock.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Many of us on the Labour Benches appreciate the modernisation and reforms that my right hon. Friend has initiated. Reforms such as putting a greater emphasis on pre-legislative scrutiny do a great deal to enhance the reputation of this House. I fear that taking a step backwards at this stage would not be in anybody's interest.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support for the changes that we have made. We should not lose sight of the fact that the bulk of the changes have consensus support in the Chamber. I think that all Members of the Ho use welcome the fact that Question Time can now be more topical as a result of the sharp reduction in the period of notice required. The introductory cross-cutting question session in Westminster Hall was generally agreed to have been a great success, especially by the representatives of the youth organisations who attended and by the record number of Members who attended Westminster Hall on that occasion. All Members appreciate the distribution of the text of statements immediately after the Minister has completed making the statement.

Many of the modernisation measures have full support so it would be premature for the House to revisit those areas that have yet to command the same degree of consensus.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Have the Leader of the House, or indeed the Modernisation Committee, which he chairs, considered suggestions that Parliament should have a more specific role in authorising the Government's use of the royal prerogative? Is it not ironic that the American President has to go to Congress for specific consent to permit American troops to go to war, while the British Prime Minister has no constitutional responsibility to the House in similar circumstances? It seems that President Blair is more presidential than President Bush.

Mr. Cook

I think that we could get too hung up on what may be the legal niceties of the situation. As I said at the start of the present Iraqi crisis, it is inconceivable that any Government could commit their troops to action without the support of Parliament. That remains my position; that remains the position of the Government. Of course, any Government must reserve the right to act immediately if the safety of our troops is at risk but, subject to that obvious reservation, a decision in this place should come first and I attach the highest importance to the right of the Commons to vote on the matter before there is any conflict.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the main objective of programming was to ensure better scrutiny of legislation both in the Chamber and in Committee? Is he surprised., therefore, to learn that on many occasions the Opposition parties believe that because the knife falls at 5 o'clock, debate should finish at 5 o'clock and not continue after that time? Do we not need to look in more detail at trying to get an agreed system on times so as to ensure that Committees work better and Bills receive proper scrutiny?

Mr. Cook

As a member of the Chairman's Panel, my hon. Friend speaks with authority on experience in Committee. He will be aware that the Modernisation Committee, of which he is also a member, has agreed to keep the experience of programming under review, and we may have an opportunity to examine some of those points of detail later in the Session.

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