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Column 767times at which the various stages of the Bill should be concluded. Such reports would be brought before the Standing Committee for debate and decision.
I share the desire of the Procedure Committee to move towards the introduction of timetable motions, where necessary, at a time which allows for properly apportioned consideration of a Bill. In the most recent Session of Parliament, we have done our best to organise the business with this in mind, most notably with the timetable motions on the Education Reform and Local Government Finance Bills. However, I see several difficulties with the Committee's proposals. In my view, they may be an overreaction to a comparatively limited problem. I acknowledge that, in some cases in recent years, Committee stages have led to unbalanced scrutiny--the Telecommunications Bill is an example--but such instances are comparatively rare and, as I have explained, I am trying to reduce them still further.
Moreover, it seems to me critical that decisions about the progress of individual Standing Committees and the need for timetabling should be taken and negotiated, as at present, in the context of a judgment on the progress of business in the House as a whole. I am not convinced that the proposed Business Sub-Committees would be able to take account of all the factors involved, nor is there any guarantee that the overall time spent by Back Benchers in Committee would not increase.
However, I have discussed with my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton and the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) the various ways in which individual Standing Committees might be given some formal role in bringing the progress of business in Committee to the attention of the House. I hope that these discussions can be taken further forward, so that I can bring forward practical proposals to the House. In particular, I look forward to hearing the suggestions of Opposition Members in a few minutes' time.
On delegated legislation, the Committee has put forward proposals which they hope would enable prayers to be debated and which would, as a quid pro quo to the Government, hold out the prospect of more affirmative motions being taken in Committee. In order to achieve this, the Committee proposes that any 20 Members would have the right to move at 3.30 pm that a prayer should be referred to a Standing Committee, with such motions being blockable by 20 or more other Members. A Minister, backed by a majority, would also have the power to ensure that an affirmative order was taken in Standing Committee rather than on the Floor. In other words, this would override the present blocking power of 20 Members.
Again, however, I see a number of potential difficulties with these proposals as they now stand.
Mr. Wakeham : I said that I would not give way again because I want to hear everyone's views, and it is important that I get on. Regarding the proposals on prayers, I believe that there is, again, a danger of exaggerating the problems that they are designed to address. Although I accept that a large number of prayers go undebated, as the House knows, prayers are frequently tabled for purposes other than
Column 768debate. I believe that, in the majority of cases where there is a genuine widespread desire for a debate, consultations through the usual channels enable this to be arranged.
I recognise that the Liberal party--if I am allowed to call it by that name --does not get as many prayers as it would like, but, by definition, the number of Liberal Members means that they cannot always command a large number of prayers.
Mr. Beith : Surely the right hon. Gentleman knows that, when those procedures were introduced, the then Leader of the House said that time would be found for all prayers to be dabated. The test of whether a prayer should be debated is not whether a large number of Members wish to debate it, but whether it constitutes legislation and should therefore be scrutinised by the House.
Mr. Wakeham : The present arrangements are reasonably satisfactory, and those prayers which there is a widespread desire to debate are debated. I am considering a proposal in the report which I believe is not totally satisfactory. Moreover, it seems to me that the proposals whereby any 20 Members could at 3.30 block prayers from going into Committee for debate might invite regular and unproductive confrontation at this time of day. As far as affirmative orders are concerned, existing provisions mean that effectively, when the Opposition so desire, arrangements are made to take them on the Floor. Under the Committee's proposals, this provision would be lost. I do not believe that this would be acceptable either to the official Opposition or to private Members generally.
Looking at the Committee's other recommendations on delegated legislation, while I accept that debate on substantive motions on instruments in Committee would give the latter a more formal role, I suspect that this would lead to greater attention to whipping arrangements than at present and to longer hours for Committee members ; so, too, would the proposal for scrapping the 11.30 "cut-off" for prayers, with the "knock-on" effect that this would have on earlier business.
Recalling to mind the general questions that I posed earlier, Mr. Speaker, I am not myself convinced that the Committee's proposals on the scrutiny of delegated legislation or on the timetabling of Bills answer them satisfactorily.
We do not live in a perfect world. It would be excellent if the House had the time to consider at length every piece of delegated legislation, every European document, every clause of every Bill, and all in the civilised hours that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North is proposing. Unless we invent some sort of time tardis, where the time available is infinitely longer than would appear from the outside parameters, then we shall have to accept that giving more time to one area of our work will restrict consideration of another. In recent Sessions, the House has reached general agreement and taken a consequent decision on a number of procedural matters. For example, Mr. Speaker, you now have the power to call for short speeches during certain debates ; steps have been taken against filibustering during Committee and Report stages ; and Special Standing Committees have been incorporated into the Standing Orders of the House. Tonight's debate provides us with a useful opportunity to assess other common
Column 769ground on procedure and determine the general wishes of the House on the next priorities for action. I shall listen with interest. Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Speaker : Order. I advise the House that I have no authority to impose short speeches in this debate. However, as the debate must end at 10 o'clock, I ask those who participate in it to be brief so that all hon. Members now in the Chamber may contribute to it.
Sir Peter Emery (Honiton) : I welcome, however belatedly, the holding of the debate. I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for the kind things that he said about me. I do not believe that it is sour grapes for me to comment that the first of the reports that we are considering this evening was published 29 months ago. With the exception of the report which was published yesterday, the remaining four reports were published not later than May 1987, in the previous Session. The House may recall that we were first promised the debate during business questions in June 1987. I hope that the House will not think me unreasonable when I say that 14 senior Members spent many hours in Committee and in detailed research trying to produce recommendations that may drag, even at a snail's pace, some of the procedures of the House into the 20th century, not the 21st century, or even 1992. Surely the Government have a responsibility-- yea, I venture to say a duty--to ensure that the House is allowed to debate our reports within a reasonable period--six months after the submission of reports. A delay of two years is an insult to those who have spent much time and effort on their work. Indeed, one member of the Procedure Committee refused to remain a member of it during the previous Parliament because he decided that its work was not considered seriously by either of the Front Benches. Perhaps I may have an assurance that that is not the position, and that in future our reports will be put promptly before the House, especially when reform of procedure is part of the recommendation. I turn now to happier matters. I am grateful that two of the Committee's recommendations have found their way on to the statute book, as it were. The use of Special Standing Committees is now part of Standing Committee procedure, but I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to ensure that they are used when appropriate. Since the acceptance of the procedure on 27 February 1986--I remember the date because it is my birthday--no Bill has been referred to a Special Standing Committee. Is the procedure to be allowed to wither on the vine? The Licensing Bill, as it then was, which was considered in the previous Session, was not a highly party-political measure and it would have been ideal for the Special Standing Committee procedure, which would have enabled outside views to be heard.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Leader of the House should tell us which of the Bills referred to in the Gracious Speech he intends to refer to a Special Standing Committee?
I am happy that the 10-minute rule for speeches during the middle two hours of a debate has been enshrined, but perhaps the House will accept my apology, as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, with six reports before the House, for not containing my remarks within 600 seconds.
I shall try to deal with four of the main parts of the Committee's reports. The part which I consider to be the most important is the allocation of time for the consideration of a Bill in Committee and on the Floor of the House. After all, time is essential for all of us in this place. I hope that this issue will be the main consideration of those who participate in the debate when I resume my seat. Even if other matters are of importance to them, I ask hon. Members to press the Government and the Opposition to accept that the Committee's recommendations have positive merit and deserve at least an experimental period so that their workability, which has been questioned by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, can be assessed properly.
What is the history of the matter? When the Procedure Committee was established at the beginning of the previous Parliament, in March 1984, it was directed by the House to consider the passage of Bills in Committee. After considerable study the Committee reported on a procedure for the formation of a Legislative Business Committee that would assess each Bill. That Committee, if it considered that a Bill would remain in Committee for more than 40 hours, would establish a time structure to be set so that all parts of the Bill would be considered in Committee without the need of a special timetable motion to be debated and passed on the Floor of the House. That proposal was voted down because it was considered to be too inflexible. That meant that it took a little power away from the business managers and the Whips and, audaciously, gave that power to Back-Bench Members. We now know that that is the definition of inflexibility. When we set out to whittle away the power of the Whips, the walls of Jericho are before us. The trumpets of the Procedure Committee were not strong enough.
Having analysed the vote on the issue, there was a greater turnout of the Establishment--my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, members of the Cabinet, junior Whips and all the Parliamentary Private Secretaries--than on any other three-line Whip of the Parliament. I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, for I mislead you. It was a greater turnout of the Establishment than on any other Division because it was a one-line Whip, not a three-line or two- line Whip. To safeguard "flexibility", the payroll marched into the Government Lobby three abreast. Only two members of it were absent. One was quite ill and the wife of the other was presenting him with a child.
The Procedure Committee was not discouraged. If it was, it was for only a moment. It turned the other cheek and tried to overcome the criticisms. It adopted the criteria that are now agreed with the business managers. The four main essentials in considering changes are exactly those which were outlined by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. They are as follows : will they in practice lead to a material improvement ; do they leave intact the legitimate rights of the Opposition ; can they be implemented without placing unreasonable extra burdens on Back Benchers ; do they still permit the Government to get their business?
Column 771What is necessary for Bills that are being considered in Committee? A Committee should not waste 100 or 120 hours debating the first three or four clauses of a Bill, thereby proving its virility in its opposition to the measure, until a guillotine motion is forced on the Government. As a procedure, that is nonsense.
Sir Peter Emery : There are a number of examples. During each Session, between five and seven timetable motions have to be introduced. The result of that procedure means, in many instances, that half or two thirds of the Bills are never discussed in Committee. I cannot give all the statistics to the House in what must be a short speech. I merely say that the facts are set out at the back of the Committee's report. The issue has been analysed quite fully and the conclusion hits the argument that there are not many examples of the first three or four clauses of a Bill being discussed for 100 or 120 hours, for example.
Steps should be taken to try to ensure that every part of a Bill is discussed in Committee. We should not further the madness whereby amendments and clauses are discussed and voted upon hours after midnight after a normal working day. The rest of the world thinks that we are mad, or, even worse, irresponsible, in continuing with this medieval procedure. The House may take these all-night sittings seriously but the country does not, especially when we appear to be acting as prize asses.
What has the Procedure Committee recommended? The recommendation is that, after six sittings of a Bill in Committee, the Business Sub-Committee-- which would be similar to that appointed after a timetable motion, but nominated at the time of the selection of the Committee--should consider whether the Bill is proceeding satisfactorily. If it is, which will be the position in nine out of 10 instances, as suggested by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), no action will be taken and the Committee will proceed in the normal way. If the Business Sub-Committee considers that there are problems, it will take only one action at the first instance, but not that inferred by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. It will decide by what date the Bill needs to be reported to the House. The Members and the Whips will then use their brilliant and historic techniques to help bring this about, with the proviso that time is found for every part of the Bill to be debated.
If that procedure has been implemented, the Business Sub-Committee will meet again after 25 hours of debate. If all is proceeding reasonably at that stage, no further action will be taken. If, however, the Bill is bogged down, the Business Sub-Committee will then, and only then, decide exactly what time shall be allocated to each part of the Bill and how that will be structured within the date required for the Bill to be reported to the House. That may require afternoon sittings, evening sittings or even sittings three days a week. However, there should be no sittings after 10 pm or after the rising of the House. In that instance, Opposition Members will know, from their experience of dealing with timetable motions, that when a Business Sub-Committee operates, the Opposition call the shots as to what should or should not be debated within the time scale. We give a specific power to the Opposition
Column 772to ensure that what they want to have properly debated in Committee, as long as all parts of the Bill are debated, shall be given proper and adequate time.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : That is not so. Once the slots are allocated, any member of the Committee can filibuster or talk at length on one item so that a particular issue in that slot is not reached. That happens frequently under the present guillotine procedure. The hon. Gentleman is saying that the Government want to timetable a Bill from the start. If that is what he is after, that is totally unacceptable to the Opposition.
Sir Peter Emery : I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is the last thing that I am trying to obtain. If what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting occurs, it is within the power of the Business Sub-Committee to allocate much smaller slots than at present. There is a method within the proposal to correct that sort of thing. Having had to deal with Business Sub- Committees, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's criticism. If his criticism is true, the Business Sub-Committee could allocate the slots to a smaller amount of time to ensure that what he suggests does not happen and that the filibuster is not used.
Two matters are very important. First, there have been no instances that the Clerk of the House can find over the past 30 years where delays caused by the Opposition in Committee have stopped a piece of legislation set out in the Queen's Speech from reaching the statute book. Nor has delay in one Bill stopped other Bills announced in the Queen's Speech from being enacted. The concept of great delays in Committee harassing the Government and stopping legislation is a false shibboleth. The only harm that does is to the sleeping habits of the Back-Bench members of that Committee.
Secondly, if the procedure that I have outlined were adopted, we would save between two and a half and three and a half days a Session on the Floor of the House. That time might be given to private Members' Bills or perhaps it would allow the House to rise a week earlier at the end of a Session. Everyone knows that the present half-day taken for a timetable motion is a complete waste of time. We no longer see it as a great parliamentary occasion. Usually the House has only a smattering of Members. There is no real heat, as there used to be 20 or 30 years ago, and time after time we hear the same speeches of noise and thunder. If ever Macbeth's lines apply outside the original script, they do to guillotine motions :
"Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a matter not simply of people's sleeping habits being interrupted, but that the primary job of a Committee, of scrutinising legislation, does not occur? Whole chunks of legislation go through which have never seen the light of day in Committee.
Sir Peter Emery : The hon. Gentleman's intervention came at exactly the right moment in my speech. I was about to say that we should have sensibly staged debates in Committee so that a Bill can be properly and fully considered and not sent off to the Lords half-digested. That would save considerable time on the Floor of the House. We would also not have the filibuster at the start, which is useless. More time could be saved if the second-look procedure were adopted. Under that procedure, the Government
Column 773would give undertakings to introduce amendments or reconsider specific points. The Standing Committee could be adjourned after the normal completion of the Bill and asked to sit again within three weeks to take up the points that have been outlined by the Minister. The Minister would return to deal with those points which he considered helpful. That would save those matters having to be dealt with on Report and in certain instances--for example, the Committee stage of the Housing Act 1988--a vast amount of time could be saved for the Report stage and for the House as a whole.
The first report of the Procedure Committee of Session 1986-87 recommended that a parliamentary calendar should be fixed for the dates of sittings. It must be to the benefit of Members to know exactly, more than just a few days ahead, what the schedule of the House is for Christmas and Easter even if the Government require flexibility at the end of the summer. It is no good saying, "Well, one knows approximately." If we want to make plans for constituency tours, overseas visits or to make arrangements with our families, whether the House is returning on 7 January or on any day up to 21 January is of vital importance to our engagements. The Government should be able to announce the dates for rising and returning for the Christmas and Easter recesses at the end of the Queen's Speech, even if they will not accept the full calendar arrangements set out in the report.
The report about televising the proceedings is quite clear, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has summed it up. It is for television to adapt to ensure that Parliament is properly portrayed and presented to the viewing public. Therefore, no changes to procedure are required at this stage.
There is a great need for consideration of delegated legislation. The report on delegated legislation is detailed and specific and highlights a number of serious problems that are likely to become worse rather than better. More and more we see parliamentary draftsmen and civil servants legislating the principle of the law, but leaving the regulations--the nitty-gritty of the law--to be decided by statutory instrument, which is out of the way in 90 minutes and can be altered the following year and every subsequent year if required. That is not the way that the Procedure Committee believes that the laws of the land should be made.
As 1992 approaches and more EEC regulations come upon us, the Procedure Committee report makes detailed and specific observations. The amount of European legislation that must be considered is much greater than most hon. Members understand. It is imperative that a more effective method for our consideration of that delegated legislation is found. I urge that paragraphs 11 to 38 of the report should have a full debate and not just be shoved away. Those aspects of delegated legislation and the necessary reforms for amendments to delegated legislation require a great deal of thought.
The strong dissatisfaction about the ability of private Members' legislation to be fully considered by the House was more obvious than any other issue raised by hon. Members with the Procedure Committee. That was clear to the previous Procedure Committee and was reinforced to the present Committee. On two Mondays in the late spring, instead of having four half- days for private
Column 774Members' motions, they should be transferred to two appropriate Fridays. Secondly, the longer full two days should be replaced by an allocation to private Members' Bills. The Government would lose no time and private Members would benefit.
The House should consider whether the hon. Member in charge of the first Bill on that Monday should be allowed the option of moving the suspension of the 10 o'clock rule. Of course, that could be divided against and the hon. Member would have to carry the House. Again, the Government would lose none of their allocation of time if such a motion were carried. However, that would be a way of overcoming the strong feeling that when a Bill received very strong support on Second Reading it should not be blocked by three or four strategically placed amendments on Report on a Friday. It should have the same possibility of consideration as is given to Government legislation. That is not as revolutionary as it sounds because it would apply only to two private Members' Bills each year--those which were first on the two Mondays to which they were allocated.
Mr. Alton : I welcome what the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he agree with the Bow Group's recent recommendation that the House should have the ability to formulate and move a motion to provide extra time for private Members' Bills? If it is the will of the House, after a Bill has had a Second Reading and been considered in Committee and on Report, surely it would not be unreasonable to allow the House of Commons to decide whether it wishes to allocate more time to complete the stages of that Bill.
Sir Peter Emery : I fully understand what the hon. Gentleman says. However, I have to consider the way in which the Government act. The Government act in a very predictable way. That suggestion would mean that some Government time would have to be allocated to private Members' Bills. Our suggestion involves no taking away of Government time. Therefore, it stands a better chance of being accepted by the Government than anything that would cut Government time. Obviously, hon. Members must make their own speeches.
Lastly, I wish to make two small but interesting suggestions. One is that a special or emergency Adjournment debate be allowed by the Speaker on two occasions per week for 20 minutes--a 10-minute speech and a 10-minute reply by a Minister--prior to the normal Adjournment. That would be for specific matters of considerable importance that had arisen. Some hon. Members do not like that suggestion, but it was made by the Committee.
The other suggestion is the possibility of time for private Members' motions on a Friday being split so that one is debated for three hours-- rather similar to a Monday half-day--thereby allowing a second motion to be debated for two hours. That, again, would spread the availability of time for private Members.
The House will be aware that much work has been done by the Committee. I do not intend to sum up what I have said, but simply return to the most important points. If Parliament is seriously to be considered as trying to make sense of its procedure, nowhere more than upstairs in Committee is sensible change essential. We must not waste hon. Members' time in parliamentary dog-fighting, even if it is only for 50 or 70 hours--as was suggested by my right
Column 775hon. Friend the Leader of the House--on the first few clauses of a Bill. We must ensure that all parts of a Bill are seriously considered, debated and open to amendment before the Bill leaves the Committee. We must not sit at all hours of the day and night, to the scorn of the well-informed, the disrespect of the media, the satirical comment of the comedian, the contempt of those who wish to see good law reach the statute book, and--perhaps although of little importance--the ultimate despair of our wives. On this matter as much as any other, will the House this evening give clear guidance to the business managers?
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) : I cannot speak on this subject without paying a heartfelt tribute to the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), who has worked so zealously as Chairman of the Committee on which I used to serve, undeterred by the shabby way in which the Committee has been treated. He referred to the fact that the payroll vote was wheeled out on a one-line Whip to defeat some major proposals and to the fact that reports have not been debated. Through all that he kept the Committee at work producing more proposals on a wide range of subjects. The House owes him a considerable debt for the work that he has done and continues to do.
I was disappointed by the speech of the Leader of the House. After a couple of hours listening to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee in public session, I thought that I had heard the most complacent of Ministers. It pains me even to imply that the Leader of the House is more complacent than the Chancellor, because I like him rather better than I do the Chancellor. However, he was totally complacent about many aspects of the procedures of the House. That can be attributed either to a lack of radical spirit or to a preference for the fact that at present the Government get their own way very nicely over far too many things. I shall pick out some of the key points that have emerged from this great pile of reports. First, on Standing Committee procedure, the Committee produced revised proposals, after criticisms of their first proposals, designed to ensure that Bills were properly debated in Standing Committee. It is scandalous that large chunks of Bills go on to the statute book without a word of debate in Committee. The House ought not to tolerate that state of affairs, which arises at least partly because of the determination of hon. Members to demonstrate their total opposition to certain Bills. But that total opposition does not prevent their having views on what the Bills should be like if they are passed, and therefore there is a need for orderly discussion. The Government really must remove the block which, with some help from the Labour Front Bench, they have placed on sensible alternative proposals.
The Bills in the forthcoming legislative Session are enormous. For the first time I have received a Bill which runs to two volumes--the Water Bill is published in two separate volumes. There is a massive task ahead of us, and large chunks of those Bills which effect large numbers of people in Britain will never be debated in the House unless we get our procedures properly sorted out.
The proposal for Special Standing Committees was enacted by the House. It is an ideal procedure for dealing with such measures as licensing laws, Sunday trading and other issues, but it simply is not being used. I endorse the challenge of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish
Column 776(Mr. Bennett) that the Leader of the House should say now that he is willing to submit some of the Bills in this Session to Special Standing Committees.
The Committee did some excellent work on the statutory instruments procedure. That is an even bigger scandal. Year by year legislation pours out of this place which has not been the subject of any amendment procedure, or in many cases any debate whatsoever. People outside the House have to work with such legislation. I am surprised that the Leader of the House, as a qualified accountant, has not realised what a mess can be made of legislation that is not subject to a proper parliamentary scrutiny system.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments scrutinises those statutory instruments, every one of which passes through our hands? Therefore, there is some scrutiny. Can he persuade the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes) to turn up more often so that she can take part in that scrutiny?
Mr. Beith : I have not been very successful in persuading the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes) of late. I did not even persuade her to join my party. However, I did the hon Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments a disservice, because that Committee examines statutory instruments, not for their merits, but for their technical competence, and it does an excellent job. However, on many occasions it draws the attention of the House to failings of statutory instruments which the House does not discuss.
When the hon. Gentlemen earlier expressed some anxiety at the idea that we might remove the block that 20 hon. Members can now place on a statutory instrument going into Standing Committee, they seemed unaware that a successful placing of that block has the effect merely of ensuring that the instrument is never debated. If the 20 hon. Members rise to stop the Bill from going upstairs, there is no obligation whatsoever on the Leader of the House ever to find time for debate on the Floor of the House.
I do not accept the Leader of the House's contention that many prayers are tabled for purposes other than debate. If hon. Members want to express an opinion on something on the Order Paper, they table a substantive motion which says what they think. They do not simply put down, "That an humble address be presented to Her Majesty." That does not convey anything to anyone. It is there because there is a reason to debate an issue.
Prayers for which no time was found are listed in the Committee's report as a percentage of prayers tabled. At one time the figure used to be nil. In 1978-79 it was 28.3 per cent. It has gone up steadily. In 1985-86 it was 69.4 per cent. It is probably more now. Nearly 70 per cent. of prayers were not debated at all. That is 70 per cent. of those statutory instruments on which hon. Members have said there ought to be a debate. It is not good enough to say that there has to be a large number of hon. Members, a whole party, or the official Opposition, seeking a debate. That is not the principle on which we legislate. As long as there is any wish in the House for some procedure to be used, legislation should be subject to a procedure. It is the making of the law of the land.
Column 777making legislation. In the same context, does he agree that the Orders in Council procedure that applies to Northern Ireland legislation is totally inadequate because it is unamendable, and therefore leaves the House with no choice other than to vote for or against that legislation at the end of a cursory one and a half hour debate? All that that leads to is a feeling of great annoyance and anger among hon. Members representing Northern Ireland.
Mr. Beith : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I omitted to say that the recommendation that there should be at least a reasoned amendment procedure in Standing Committee is very important, because it enables a Standing Committee to give a signal that something fairly fundamental is wrong which would not lead it to throw out the measure, but which puts pressure on the Government to bring forward some alternative proposals on the Floor of the House.
The Committee made a limited recommendation, which I believe to be helpful, on private Members' legislation. It was defeated by a narrow margin of six votes to five. The proposal was that the House should, in a few limited circumstances, have the power to decide to bring the matter to a conclusion. If a Bill has had a Second Reading, been through its Committee stage and been debated for a considerable time, the House should have the power to bring the matter to a conclusion. Let us take the example of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) last Session. It brings the House into national disrepute when there has been a national debate on a major issue, the House has debated it at great length, but a decision cannot be reached because the House is incapable of giving itself time to reach a decision.
The Government do not accept any such restraint in their business. They say that they must have their business. All that was proposed was that the House should, in a few limited circumstances, have the power to decide that an important matter should be brought to a conclusion. Last year it was abortion, another year it might be freedom of information and yet another year a measure affecting the disabled. Whatever the Bill, if there has been massive public debate and the House has gone through all the procedures necessary to bring it to Report, it is ludicrous that the House should be incapable of reaching a decision.
The issue of the parliamentary calendar is probably more for the convenience of hon. Members and those who work for the House than for anyone else. It is ludicrous that we cannot predict when the House will rise at Christmas, Easter or summer. Indeed, Opposition Members might think that it would put the Government under usefully greater pressure if they had to work to a calendar. The Committee considered the Canadian example and found Members on both sides of that very divided and contentious House thoroughly happy that such a scheme had been introduced. I have checked since that visit, because there have been quite a few political alarms and excursions in Canada. Although the timetable was not fully operated in two recent years when major issues arose--most recently, the free trade issue-- the Members still felt that it was good to have a timetable, even if sometimes they went outside it.
Other issues will arise. I share the Committee's view that it would be premature to make changes designed to
Column 778suit television. After all, it is only an experiment and it has not yet taken place. I think that, in time, some procedures will appear strange--for example, the leader of the largest Opposition party can ask repeated supplementaries during Prime Minister's questions, but that opportunity is never available to the next largest Opposition party. So great a difference cannot arise because one party is larger in Parliament than the other. In time, I am sure that that will be seen to be an unfair procedure, but we shall see when we have had the television experiment.
The House will have to consider wider issues. We believe that the House does too much--it legislates for Scotland, Wales and the regions of England on matters that should be decided in those areas. The sooner that there is a Parliament in Scotland, for example, dealing with those matters, the better. The Government also do too much. They are an amazingly itchy- fingered Government. They cannot wait to get their fingers into every possible aspect of our lives and then legislate about it. When I first came to the House many Tory Members of Parliament said that, when they were in power, there would not be so much legislation. They said that it was just the Socialists who wanted to interfere all the time. They said that when the Conservative party was in power there would be a lighter legislative timetable--at least, after the first couple of years when they had the main legislation on the statute book. What a fallacy that has turned out to be. There are no fingers itchier than those of Government Ministers, and none more so than the Ministers of this Government. I am not sure that our people are the better for that, as they struggle to live with the laws that we so inadequately scrutinise.
Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point) : We should be thankful that, at long last, we are having this debate. It is a serious reflection on the way that we conduct our business that not until the end of 1988 are we considering valuable reports from the Select Committee on Procedure published over a period of three to four years. I wish to direct my remarks to the second report, published in the 1986-87 Session, on the use of time on the Floor of the House and specifically to its reference to private Members' time. That is a crucial subject for hon. Members on both sides of the House, especially when the issues that they have sought to raise are of grave concern. I refer to matters with which Governments--indeed, all Governments--have felt unable to deal, such as abortion and tampering with the human embryo, both of which are concerned with the very beginnings of human life. If Governments have neither the time nor the moral courage to grapple with momentous issues of that kind, the least we can ask is that action is taken to consider the recommendations of Select Committees which have thought long and hard on the subjects and produced recommendations. Notice must be taken of the intense feeling of many hon. Members about the way in which we conduct business of this kind.
It is incomprehensible to the public how we dilly-dally and fudge important matters. Indeed, it is incomprehensible to them how it is that a private Member's Bill, which commands an overwhelming majority in the House on Second Reading and completes its Committee stage, cannot make any further progress because of deliberate, blatant sabotage by a minority of hon. Members through
Column 779the use of existing procedure. The matter was brought to a head in 1985--and one or two hon. Members have already reminded the House of this--after a private Member's motion was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden). It followed a blatant abuse of procedure, designed to block Mr. Enoch Powell's Unborn Children (Protection) Bill. Mr. Powell had introduced his Bill in December 1984. It was given a Second Reading on Friday 15 February 1985 by a large majority of 230 to 66, and it was sent to Standing Committee. It successfully completed its Committee stage and returned to the Floor of the House to begin its Report stage on Friday 3 May, when it was the second order of the day.
The first order was a non-controversial Bill on the subject of road traffic documents, which had obtained a Second Reading on the nod and spent only five minutes in Committee. Because of a determined filibuster the debate on Mr. Powell's Bill did not begin until 1 o'clock. Mr. Powell moved the closure at 2.29 pm and a vote was taken on the hostile amendment under discussion, which the supporters of the Bill won by 157 votes to 82. There was then no further time available for the Bill--the saboteurs had achieved their purpose. The Government refused to provide the necessary additional time, so only one option was left to the Bill's supporters, who felt that the will of the House should not be thwarted by a tiny minority.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown drew first place in the private Members' motions ballot and announced that he would introduce a motion to give Mr. Powell's Bill extra time. Opponents of the Bill then accused its supporters of abusing the procedures of the House, ignoring the fact that their own abuse of procedure had caused the original problem. Once more, the will of the House was thwarted when, on 7 June, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) moved the writ for the Brecon and Radnor by-election and a number of Members presented petitions of a similar nature, one after the other. The private Members' motion debate was adjourned at 2.30 pm after just 15 minutes of debate. That was scandalous, and many hon. Members expected the Select Committee to deal with the matter in a realistic way.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) : As a new and inexperienced Member, I must say that many people of all politics and none in my constituency have said that they wonder how we can continue screaming and yelling at each other at Question Time. I have not been approached on any one issue by more people, including those who disagreed with the Life movement and with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) on the issue of abortion. People wonder how the House of Commons can stand by and allow itself to be sat on by a minority of people making a mockery out of its procedures. It is an insult to democracy.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There have been several attacks on the procedures of the House because of the recent Bill on abortion. Will you confirm that throughout the period when that private Member's Bill was pursued in the House the Standing Orders and procedures of the House were followed? There was no abuse of procedure ; there was
Column 780simply a following of procedure. To attack the procedure as being an abuse is, in fact, an implicit attack on whoever is occupying the Chair, including yourself, Mr. Speaker.
Sir Bernard Braine : If the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) had asked me that question through you, Mr. Speaker, I would have given him exactly the same answer. I am complaining about arrangements which caused consternation outside the House and the kind of reaction to which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) referred. Not only were people complaining to their Members of Parliament, but most of us who were known to be worried about it were receiving vast numbers of letters, and some right hon. and hon. Members had to face demonstrations in and outside their constituencies. There was intense anger about this issue all over the country. My hon. Friend was absolutely right. We witnessed a skilful use of existing weaknesses in our procedure. This debate is to direct attention to those weaknesses and, if possible, to get them remedied.
The Select Committee made some recommendations which I hope will be accepted by the House, namely, Nos. 22 and 23. The latter is extremely important. I am referring to like petitions, one after another, which are presented to take up the time of the House. The Committee, at paragraph 68, said :
"The right to petition is undoubted."
That is a reference to the disgraceful episode on 7 June 1985, but it went on to recommend :
"if presentation of petitions has not been concluded by 10 am on a Friday when private Members' bills are taken any further petitions set down for that day should be presented, as on other days of the week, immediately before the moving of the adjournment for the purpose of bringing the sitting to a conclusion."
If that recommendation were adopted now, there could not be a repetition of what happened in 1985. My complaint is that we are now in 1988 and nothing has been done about behaviour which caused intense anger up and down the country from supporters of all political parties. It is inevitably the only issue upon which the members of the Ulster Unionist party and the Nationalist Opposition in Northern Ireland are completely agreed. It is a matter which brings together hearts and minds across the political divide. It must not be treated in a trivial fashion. It is high time that the House spoke its mind on the subject, which it has not been given the opportunity to do until now.
I would suggest, too, that a private Member whose Bill is first in the debate on a private Members' day should be empowered to move the indefinite suspension of the rule to provide for unlimited debate after 10 pm. It may be argued that, once a proposal of that kind is made, it could lead to all- night sittings, but I do not think so. In the main, the House is composed of reasonable people. The mere threat of a filibuster would soon be removed by the suspension of the 10 o'clock rule. Working on the assumption that each group of amendments would take one and a half hours to debate, it would take a large selection of amendments to force the House to sit all night.
Mr. William Powell (Corby) : Are not filibusters which occur on the Floor of the House far more likely to occur in the middle of the night than before 10 o'clock? If there is a suspension of the 10 o'clock rule, it is likely that there
Column 781will be some very long filibusters by hon. Members who are opposed to the measure that its supporters are trying to advance.
Sir Bernard Braine : Let us make some progress in the matter. Of course, one can raise objections of that kind, but I feel that, once it is seen that the House wishes action to be taken, the message will be received.
Mr. Alton : I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has been saying. The truth is that there would be votes on closures after one and a half hours, whether it was in the middle of the night or at any other time, and the House could then make progress. Does he agree that it brings us into disrepute when 296 Members can give a Bill a Second Reading, and we can spend 30 hours considering matters in Committee--and we even completed our debate on Report of my own private Member's Bill--but then, in the middle of voting on Report, the clock can strike 2.30 pm and prevent the House from taking any further decision? Does he agree that that makes a mockery of the word "democracy"?
Sir Bernard Braine : Of course, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is right, and I would advise my dear friend to note that he is a former Chief Whip. I have been here for many years and I have served in Committees all through the night, so I know how the system works. I feel that it is disgraceful for the House to be embroiled, as it has been, by such filibustering within the rules. I believe that, if we made these simple reforms, the message would be delivered. However, there are ways and means of dealing with those who seek to speak right through the night.
Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield) : I have listened to the Father of the House and I am getting his message very clearly. However, it appears that he is basing his argument on one Bill, because that Bill was controversial. There were many hon. Members in the Chamber on that day, and I believe that Members speak in the House on behalf of their constituents. When they want to get in, they contribute. I contributed for 23 minutes the other night because I believed that it was necessary. So the filibustering, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, is a load of rubbish.