HC Deb 25 May 2004 vol 421 cc1437-9
30. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)

To ask the Leader of the House if he will submit plans to the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons to simplify papers for standing committees. [175289]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain)

I am aware that some Members find the form and number of Standing Committee papers unhelpful. The Modernisation Committee is considering the accessibility of the House's publications in its current inquiry on Parliament's engagement with the public, which includes the form of the papers provided for members of Standing Committees.

Dr. Whitehead

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, in many ways, the present arrangements for Committee papers resemble the form-guide sketch from the Marx brothers' "A Day at the Races", in that one needs four documents—the Bill, the explanatory notes, the list of amendments tabled and the Chairman's selection of amendments—to understand what is going on? Does he have any proposals on methods whereby all those documents could be combined, for perusal by both the public and Committee members?

Mr. Hain

The Procedure Committee is also considering the matter. I understand my hon. Friend's point. The Modernisation Committee has held a number of evidence sessions with members of the public in which that point has been repeated, especially by visitors who are attending a Standing Committee for the first time. We need to address the issue, but pulling the various papers—the Bill, the explanatory notes, the amendment paper, the selection list, the background papers, Library notes, and so on—into one document would be difficult and perhaps costly. None the less, simplifying the process should be a common objective.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

May I suggest one way of improving papers for Standing Committees—a sort of modernisation, perhaps even a tidying-up exercise? [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] One or two of my hon. Friends say no, but should not the Opposition be allowed to publish explanatory notes with key amendments on the Committee amendment paper?

Mr. Hain

That is taking modernisation very far indeed. Were the hon. Gentleman ever to find himself in government—which is unlikely, despite his being a nice fellow—he might take a rather different view.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the evidence taken so far by the Modernisation Committee makes it clear that Standing Committees are the least understood part of our proceedings? It is evident to me as a member of the Chairmen's Panel that Members often do not understand how amendments are selected and how their amendments will be voted on if they choose to press them to a vote.

Mr. Hain

Of course, selection of amendments is not a matter for the Leader of the House, but my hon. Friend underlines the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) that the procedure in Standing Committees is baffling to visitors. On the other hand, members of Standing Committees deal with highly complex aspects of Bills that will become law, and such matters have to be dealt with seriously and technically in order to conform to the legislative requirements. We have to get the balance right, but I am sure that it has to be struck in favour of greater clarity and openness and a more welcoming atmosphere for visitors to the House.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

Does the Leader of the House accept that the Modernisation Committee has evidence that not just Members and visitors but people with a direct interest in the legislation who may be affected by the outcome find the whole procedure unintelligible? Does he accept that we need to look seriously, for example, at the timing of advance notice of issues that are coming up in Standing Committee? We must, as the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) said, look hard at the way in which Select Committees have improved their procedures and made themselves much more intelligible to everybody with an interest in those matters.

Mr. Hain

Yes, indeed. Select Committees have done an admirable job in that respect. As for the serious issue of people knowing what is coming up, I assume that that is a vote for programming, which enables us to do that. For the interested groups to which, I assume, the hon. Gentleman was referring indirectly, and which may have a direct stake in legislation, knowing what day an issue will be discussed in Committee and at what time is a tremendous benefit of programming. The hon. Gentleman's wider argument, however, is generally very welcome.