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Mr. Alton rose --
Sir Bernard Braine : No, I shall not give way. Other hon. Members wish to contribute and I wish now to move to my conclusion. I want to make a subtle suggestion to my right hon. Friend. I believe that my proposal would assist the Government because it would prevent them from being pressurised--often by their Back Benchers--as they have been and as they will be in the future if there is no reform, into finding additional parliamentary time for a particular Bill. It would also enable the Government to remain strictly neutral towards that Bill. I suggest that the matter should be left to the good sense of the House. For example, since 1975 the majority of hon. Members have wanted to see an end to late abortion and also to abortion virtually on demand, which the supporters of the 1967 Act claimed
Column 782was never their intention to encourage. It is an outrage that a group of hon. Members who sought to amend the law, in keeping with the original intention of Parliament in 1967, should be denied that right by outdated and undemocratic procedures. It is time for good sense and fairness to prevail. It is time for change.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : Before offering any comments on the procedural reforms before the House, I must express the view that the arrival of television, which is a development that I have opposed and still oppose, will precipitate a whole series of procedural reforms.
The Procedure Committee's reforms that we are examining tonight were all arrived at without any informed consideration of the advent of television, because we were not in a position to do that. A number of the proposed reforms that we have made would have been markedly different if they had been considered in the context of televised proceedings. My view, and I have expressed it in the Procedure Committee, is that, on a number of fronts, we should suspend the amendment of procedure pending the completion of the six-month trial period--if that ever takes place. I hope that it will not. Our second report of 1985-86 dealt with the allocation of time. I believe that timetabling is correct. From a former position of supporting delay in Committee as a tactic--probably, in truth, it was no more than an inability to budget my own time effectively following my first election to the House--I have moved to a position of outright opposition to the tactic. It is a meaningless and senseless exercise. It is a delusion because, in practice, the Whips have complete control of the timetable. We never create a major obstruction to the Government's programme by using such tactics. Over the years I have sat on many Standing Committees and I have never seen a Bill delayed beyond the date set by the Government. Furthermore, few outside even know what is happening, apart from the lobbies, union observers and too-easily-impressed party activists who are duped into believing that some importance is attached to the exercise.
It is important to retain the right to delay on Report. The loss of a day on Report, or even an overnight debate, is invariably well reported. It is an indication of effective opposition, whether it be a Government rebellion or an Opposition attack. It shows Parliament at its best.
Since the Select Committee last examined the question of shorter speeches, the House has resolved to allow access to television. There can be no doubt that this development will result in demands from Back Benchers for television exposure. For a start, regional coverage of activities on the Floor will turn out to be far more important than national coverage, certainly for the mere mortals amongst us. There will be a marked shift in the weighting of speeches from national to local concerns. The incidence of national coverage for the average Back Bencher will be minimal, whereas regional coverage will become extensive, if only because it offers cheap television for the new franchises under the financial pressure in the new round. Hon. Members will be in search of a slot, and that can only mean far greater numbers of Members in search of Floor time, and therefore heavy lists for the Speaker to
Column 783consider. Pressure for shorter speeches is inevitable, and the arrangements approved on 27 February 1986 will be seen as minimal concessions.
The extension of the restriction on Second Readings to full Opposition day debate and full day debates on Government motions has been the subject of an order for the past two Sessions. The Select Committee has proposed the adoption of a permament Standing Order, but I do not believe that that recommendation goes far enough. There is no reason why nearly all speeches should not be subject to the 10-minute restriction, apart from those by party spokesmen or those by Members moving motions, amendments or new clauses. Such a restriction could endure for most of the parliamentary day from the commencement of public business to the commencement of the Adjournment debate. Such a restriction could be perceived by some as unreasonable and burdensome. However, we should recall that the Speaker would have discretion and, on the desired proportion of our business that was not the subject of pressure, he or she could exercise that discretion.
The only area of difficulty is the Report stage of a Bill. I believe that such business should be exempt from procedural restriction. The Report stage could be the subject of self-regulation prompted by the Whips, who, under conditions of televising, will acquire substantial new influence over events.
Paragraph 5 of the Committee's third report of 1985-86 entered some interesting observations on the value of interventions and the use of prepared speeches. Prepared speeches in the form of written statements, such as the one that I am giving tonight, which are read into the record will make for poor television. I am sure that that will mean changes for many hon. Members.
Interventions are much more of a problem, because they are often crucial to effective debate. I have thought long and hard on this matter and have concluded that, if we do have a 10-minute limit, speakers should not be penalised because of interventions. They should be awarded additional time, perhaps as much as a minute or two. At this stage this proposition may seem a bit sloppy, but I can only reiterate the view that if television comes in it will transform the Chamber and the nature of debate.
I also agree with the recommendation to wind up business in Committee at 10 pm, for the reasons outlined.
The other principal recommendation, which provides for the use of a Business Sub-Committe to fix a "fair terminal date", is extremely complicated. I am not sure that it would work in practice. The proposition appears to provide for a series of negotiated and renegotiated target "terminal dates" for proceedings in Standing Committee. I believe that the terminal date timetabling of Bills, under an alternative option that I am proposing, could be negotiated at Chief Whip level--dependent on arrangements--and, if necessary, occasionally with official Opposition and Government spokesmen in attendance.
The agreement could then be referred to the Business Sub-Committee as proposed in the report for the timetabling of clauses. The cynic, indeed the realist, may argue that the effect of giving the Business Sub-Committee overall control of the "terminal date" would still, under my system, leave the Whips in charge of negotiations and recommendations to Committee. If that is the case, why go through the motions of the Select Committee's recommendations?
Column 784On a number of occasions I have referred to the rights of Privy Councillors. Our third report of 1985-86 on shorter speeches failed to tackle the question of the rights of Privy Councillors. According to my informants who were on the Committee at that time, the matter was not even raised during the deliberations.
Nevertheless, consideration of this matter is an important issue in the light of televising the House. Some of us refuse to accept that Members without portfolios who are Privy Councillors have any greater right to be called in debate than others who equally lack portfolios. I doubt that they have the right even to be called earlier. With the advent of television, this matter will acquire a new importance. Some of us, certainly I for one, will set about restructuring that privilege. We shall use procedure to secure its removal. I believe that the ending of the privilege will come through an initiative in the Procedure Committee in response to pressure on the Floor of the House. This matter should equally surface as an item on the agenda to be considered by the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House, as it relates to fair play in the allocation of time and opportunities to Members. If my nomination to the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House had not been blocked, I should have dealt with that matter.
My soundings among Conservatives do not suggest any great support for this form of Member advantage and privilege. In fact, a number of Conservatives have privately expressed to me their concern about the possible abuse of Privy Councillor privilege on their Benches. One Conservative Back Bencher referred to a Privy Council hoard on his Benches, comprised of people who are not the Prime Minister's most impassioned admirers.
Some of my cynical hon. Friends might say, "Leave it to them." That has never been my view. The whingeing right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) has never done a blind bit of good for the Labour party. On the contrary, he has only served to convince liberal Tories that they still have a voice at Westminster. Certainly such dissidents grab the headlines and make it more difficult for the Opposition to be seen to be spearheading opposition. I conclude with the view that Privy Councillors will fight hard to defend the indefensible, but they must be beaten.
Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South) : It seems wrong that there is no equality among right hon. and hon. Members. Being a very junior Member I have less chance of speaking on behalf of my constituents, even though they are clearly as important as those of a Privy Councillor.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : We are all born equal and should all be treated as equals in this Chamber. The problem is that we are not, and I do not blame you, Mr. Speaker, for that--it is precedent. I turn to public Bill procedure. Apart from the question of timetabling, there is in the second report of 1984-85 a number of recommendations awaiting debate. Among them is one for reconvening Standing Committees to dispense of undertakings given by Ministers--to which reference was made by our Chairman, and I may say that he has been a very good Chairman--and for the approval of consequential and drafting amendments. It was felt that
Column 785the recommendation for reconvening Standing Committees would reduce the amount of business to be dealt with on Report.
No doubt there are times when such an arrangement would be helpful, but at others it could be positively unhelpful to the House, which, wishing to debate highly important and contentious legislation, might find that Mr. Speaker's selection of amendments denied debates on issues that the Government had carefully manoeuvred into Committee and possibly away from the cameras.
I come now to the parliamentary calendar. I have few words to express on the subject, having been elected to the Select Committee on Procedure after its consideration. I admit to prejudice against the Canadian precedent that the Committee examined. The position in respect of the Scots must be mentioned. It is untenable, and the recommendation in paragraph 3 of the first report 1986-87 that the House should rise not later than 21 July would be a useful and much needed procedural reform. However, not even that would fully deal with the problems of Scottish Members. The timing of party conferences precludes the earlier resumption of hostilities at the end of the summer recess, but that need not be the case. We have the opportunity to reform, and paragraphs 8, 9 and 10 of the report argue the case very persuasively.
As to use of time on the Floor of the House, the report makes reference to private Members' Bills procedure and the availability of time to right hon. and hon. Members wishing to raise matters of a topical nature. The House will not need much prompting to recognise my objectives. Although it may be said that there are times when a Labour-sponsored private Member's Bill could benefit from the prolonged debate that our proposals recommend, the present position is outrageous--although I fully understand that the beneficiaries of such a procedural warp may feel pleased with the current arrangements. However, in all natural justice they are defending the indefensible.
The argument surfaced in the Committee in all its dishonesty. It had more to do with the arguments about abortion and the embryo than about parliamentary procedure. Those right hon. and hon. Members who sat on the Committee know what I am talking about. It does not augur well for objective discussion of Back-Bench power. When that matter is finally debated on the Floor of the House, I suspect that matters will take a similar turn. It will be interesting to know the position taken by the Leader of the House. Will he propose a reasonable and just approach, defending the rights of Back Benchers in the finest traditions of the House of Commons, or will he oppose our recommendations for tactical reasons? On the last occasion, he always seemed to bring, bear or carry the will of the Prime Minister on these matters to the House of Commons. I am not convinced that he is utterly objective. I know that he will object to my comments, but that remains my view, and I am sure that I am correct.
I understand my own party's difficulty, but hope that the shadow Cabinet will resolve not to oppose but to ignore the recommendation in question and will remain neutral--if it is necessary for the shadow Cabinet to take a decision. Such an approach may not be in the finest traditions, but we should beware of spurious opposition. As the Committee points out in paragraph 61, the
Column 786Government's progress with Bills is not terminated by Big Ben at 10 o'clock ; they simply table a motion to suspend the 10 o'clock rule. No matter what the strength of opposition, the Government are likely to clear the Report stage without much difficulty.
A switch from Friday to Monday for private Members' Bills could possibly secure for them an additional one and a half hours' debate or more. The four half days otherwise given over to private Members' Bills under present arrangements would be consolidated into two full Friday debates. It will be seen from the report that discussion took place on the right of a right hon. or hon. Member to move a business motion at 2.30 pm, providing for additional time after 10 o'clock on private Members' Bills on Mondays. That would transform the chance of a Bill clearing the hurdle of the Report stage. It would mean all-night debates on two private Members' Bills if there had been resistance to their passage, but if there are heated arguments on private Members' Bills, why should the House not sit all night on Monday? If that is the time that it takes to debate contentious legislation, and if it occurs only once or twice a year, we should be willing to afford that time. I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends that we are willing to turn up if we can debate a Report stage overnight and attempt to delay the introduction of legislation and bust the 2.30 pm timetable for the following day. If the motivation exists to do that, it should equally exist to allow proper debate of contentious issues.
Sir Peter Emery : Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear that, in order to do that, a right hon. or hon. Member must still carry his motion with majority support in a Division? It is not a simple matter, but, in fairness, a right hon. or hon. Member must have the support of the House for such a motion.
Televising the House has wide implications for prime time. The organisation of Back Benchers on theme issues will require the development of considerable expertise in the Whips' Office. I feel sure that it will respond positively. The Opposition's Whips' Office will certainly do so, just as I expect that of the Government will. I understand that the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House visited Canada to see for itself the one-minute speech procedure. I am led to believe that it is appalling and trivialises issues. However, there is a need for a slot to privide an opportunity for important and topical issues to be raised briefly. The use of the Standing Order No. 20 procedure is an indication of the demand, and that is recognised in the report.
The problem is that the report has produced an ineffective compromise. It provides for two additional Adjournment debates each week, but at what cost? I foresee the loss of private notice questions and of statements in prime time in favour of
mini-Adjournment debates answered by Ministers in low-profile time after 10 o'clock, and without the right to question the Minister. The danger is to be found where the recommendation refers to "topical concern" and dissatisfaction with replies, enabling "notice" to be given "for the following day". I alert my colleagues to the danger inherent in that new
Column 787procedure, which could prove disastrous for Back Benchers. My inclination is to oppose it, although I shall listen with interest to any counter arguments.
The House wil note that I entered a caveat in the form of an amendment to the report. Again, I failed. Some hon. Members not of my political view may have seen advantage. Also among the amendments tabled was my counter proposition, which extracted no support. My amendment did not provide for a ministerial response. I argued that in granting a five-minute Adjournment debate Mr. Speaker could by practice call a Conservative Back Bencher last in the debate. He or she would act as a sweep.
That approach might be novel, but it would certainly have a marked effect on late-night debates, helping to keep the Government on their mettle and fully accountable. It would provide an excellent opportunity for regional television, in an odd way helping to reassert the national context in which the House debates in ordinary time by providing a regional slot, but it would also prevent Ministers from going to the Dispatch Box on what would in effect be 24 or 48-hour notice debates. I believe that you, Mr. Speaker, would find pressure being exerted on you not to grant PNQs, but to ensure that they fell within the mini-Adjournment debates.
I have spoken for 19 minutes. Perhaps I have overshot my time, but I should have liked to talk about a number of other matters. I hope that no precipitate action will be taken, and that no procedural reforms will be introduced in the coming months before the television cameras come in. If television is allowed in, it will transform this place. We shall oppose it, but if introduced it might mean very different reforms.
Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton) : More than three and a half years after the Select Committee on Procedure produced its report "Public Bill Procedure", we are not debating motions to implement any part of it. Once again we are debating on a motion to adjourn ; sometimes it is a motion to take note. Three weeks ago, our report was not even available when I tried to obtain a copy. I see that it has been hastily reproduced in almost legible condition by some process other than printing, presumably for this debate, but that is an indication of how much time has already passed since its production.
Some years ago, Mr. Speaker, I asked the Accountant of the House who authorised the expenditure of Select Committees taking evidence outside Westminster but within the United Kingdom. As he could not give me the answer, the matter went to your predecessor, Mr. Speaker Thomas. He and the Accountant had to fall back on a "take note" motion--not a motion to approve--concerning a Procedure Committee report of many years ago. That is the state to which our proceedings have deteriorated. It is lamentable that, even after such a lapse of time, there should be no proposals on which the House can make a decision.
Much emotional energy has been expended on private Bill procedure. I think that an aspect of the fate of the Abortion (Amendment) Bill has a lesson for us. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who was strongly in favour of the Bill, said that it received a large majority on Second Reading. So it did, but not in the form in which it went on Report. You, Mr. Speaker, were put in an impossible position. The Standing Committee had
Column 788inserted a provision which, had it been in the Bill on Second Reading, might have prevented it from receiving a Second Reading. Under that provision, if a woman had been impregnated in the course of a rape, she could nevertheless be denied an abortion.
I understand the position in which you found yourself, Mr. Speaker. If you had given the House the opportunity to debate a provision that many regarded as iniquitous, it would have meant selecting another amendment. You would then have been accused in certain quarters of killing the Bill by selecting too many amendments. On the other hand, not to debate that provision--to which the House had never agreed on Second Reading--meant that time was running out without any possibility of debating a crucial provision. The sponsors and supporters of the Bill never referred to that when they appeared on television saying how abusive were the proceedings of the House. The promoters of private Members' Bills need to adopt a discipline : all the major ingredients should be in a Bill when it is presented for its Second Reading. Such tricks should not be played on the House. The composition of the Standing Committee reflects the vote on Second Reading. A favourable Committee can be obtained if provisions on which a majority would not be obtained are not put in before the Committee stage. The House is then denied the opportunity of debating a major provision on the last possible occasion before Third Reading. In such circumstances, among those who are put in an impossible position is the occupant of the Chair.
Sir Bernard Braine rose --
Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop : I shall not give way to the Father of the House. Too much time--and time is running out--has been spent in discussing the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, although it was necessary for me to allude to it because it illuminates an aspect of private Bill procedure.
The Abortion (Amendment) Bill illuminates the obligations that must repose with those who put forward private Members' Bills within whatever constraints of time apply--and there will always be constraints. I shall now give way to the Father of the House.
Sir Bernard Braine : My hon. Friend must not mislead the House. He made a perfectly sound point in his general observations about a different Bill coming to the House at a later stage, but he was wrong in this instance. The Bill's sponsors had decided to take note of speeches made on Second Reading which asked for the Bill to be amended. The amendments were moved by sponsors of the Bill, the aim being to bring back to the House a Bill that had taken account of views expressed on Second Reading. To that extent, the Bill might be regarded as having been improved ; it was certainly more sensitive to the feelings of the House. It is wrong to suggest that Mr. Speaker was put in an impossible position. Mr. Speaker presides over a legislative process that allows for amendment.
Column 789possibility if they do not realise that they are going to present the Chair on Report with an impossible dilemma--a dilemma of their making.
I now leave private Members' Bill procedure because I am concerned about the three-and-a-half-year-old report on public Bill procedure that we can just read in its present form. We suggested that there should be more use of Special Standing Committees. That is because the House often legislates on technical matters, with its mind unclouded by knowledge. That is why the Procedure Committee recommended the introduction of that procedure in the first place. It is one thing to have the procedure--extant as a possibility in Standing Orders--but it does not do anybody very much good if the Government do not make use of the procedure that is extant in Standing Orders. My plea is that it should be more used. I believe that the time spent in Standing Committee on a Bill would then be more tightly focused and more productive, as it would produce good legislation that did not have unintended consequences.
One of the objectives of a Standing Committee on a Bill is to ensure that the Bill achieves the consequences that were intended and does not have consequences that were unintended. One of the virtues of the Special Standing Committee procedure is that those who are more familiar with the subject matter that will be affected by the legislation can give the benefit of their advice, not expressed in party political terms, to the House as a whole. That will also be of benefit in Committee and on Report.
I turn to a much more recent report--only a year and a half old--entitled "Use of Time on the Floor of the House". There is an old adage that nature abhors a vacuum ; but nature also gives way to pressure that it cannot sustain. Unless we make more provision for dealing with urgently contentious matters, there will be abuse of the points of order procedure. We know that there has been such abuse. The Procedure Committee's objective would be not to pretend that that abuse would go away, but to see how it could reasonably be accommodated without imposing on the House and those who serve it in so many capacities an even greater and unreasonable prolongation of our sittings.
Our proposal in paragraph 76--that twice a week there should be a short emergency debate chosen by you, Mr. Speaker--was a reasonable attempt to give to the House an alternative to spurious points of order. To those who would reject it, I am bound to say, "What would you put in its place, other than abusing the rules of order?" The pressure is there for all to see and hear. If your Committee's very modest recommendation is to be rejected, Mr. Speaker, it must, in my view, only fairly be rejected in favour of a better alternative, not in favour of nothing whatever.
Reference has already been made to a number of other aspects, but other hon. Members want to speak in the debate, which is already two thirds gone. Therefore, I must ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, whose interest in procedure I know to be authentic, to give us time to take decisions about procedural matters, rather than just to debate them either on a take-note basis or in Adjournment debates. At the end of the day, however, I have this baleful message for him. However often the
Column 790Select Committee on Procedure sits to try to find ways by means of which the House does not sit at ridiculous hours, when it cannot perform its task appropriately or efficiently, and however many reports it produces, we shall be swamped by legislation unless there is discipline over the introduction of legislation. That, I am afraid, follows, and it is something that only the Cabinet can remedy. It is not within the control of Back-Bench Members of the House. I used the word "legislation" because about 15 years ago I introduced a Bill, the Amendment of Statutory Instruments Bill. Each year I have weighed on the kitchen scales the bound volumes of Acts of Parliament of the last Session and the bound volumes of statutory instruments. The latter got remorselessly heavier as compared to the former, as well as in absolute terms. The proportion of our legislation which the House is powerless to alter increases each year. Nothing will convince me that it is not the least skilful parliamentary draftsmen who are put on to drafting secondary legislation, because they know that their Minister will not have to defend it against amendments in Committee. Naturally, the more skilled ones are put on to drafting Bills, and the less skilled on to statutory instruments. The absolute bottom of the bucket are put on to drafting legislation subject to the negative resolution procedure, which will probably never come before the House at all for shortage of time.
The House will not have done its task, however hard its Select Committee works, until it grasps the nettle of having a process for amending statutory instruments. Therefore, our first tentative step towards that is recommending a reasoned amendment to be within the power of the appropriate Statutory Instrument Committee. It is a tiny step and a halting one, but for heaven's sake, let us take it. 9.6 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : I agree with the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) about the desirability of the House being able to amend statutory instruments. That would be very helpful when we are trying to redress power.
I pay tribute to the work of the Procedure Committee, but it is sometimes too concerned with formal procedures and has not paid enough attention to the informal procedures which run parallel to the formal ones. Members of the Committee have illustrated that tonight by complaining that there has been no opportunity to debate their reports in the House.
Members of the Procedure Committee, almost all of whom are here, with a small number of others, must understand that, if we are to amend the House's procedures, we have to ensure that all 650 Members are involved. Although at least one of the Select Committee's reports is out of print and difficult to get hold of, my impression is that most hon. Members have not looked at its reports. Speaking to a cross-section of hon. Members this week to find out what was to be debated tonight and their views on the subject did not lead to enlightenment for me.
The first problem for the Procedure Committee is to ensure that its reports are fully debated in the informal atmosphere in the House before there is a formal debate. I fear that, with many of its proposals, it has not overcome that first hurdle and got a majority of hon. Members to consider what it proposes.
Column 791I am a little worried about the parliamentary calendar. An informal calendar already exists, but the problem will not be solved by making it formal. The problem is that the calendar is wrong. If we make the informal calendar formal, we will solve nothing. We will merely give the Opposition an opportunity to say, "We fought very hard and we have wrecked the calendar again this year." That is not much use. The fundamental thing to which the report draws attention is the view that the House should not sit in July.
We ought to recognise, particularly as the average age of hon. Members has got younger, that hon. Members ought to have the right to go away on holiday with their families in July and not have to take their children away from school. The problem is especially acute in Scotland. It is not a matter of a formal or informal calendar, but of the House having the will to reorganise its time so that it does not sit in that part of July.
I now turn to the question whether we should timetable Bills from the start. Let us be clear that, at present, the right to timetable Bills rests with the Opposition when the Bill starts off. In my experience, the Opposition make a good attempt to timetable the Bill effectively. Although it has been argued that some long Bills have gone through the House with discussion on only the first one or two clauses, I believe that, on the whole, those are exceptions. If one looks at the political content of such a Bill, one realises that most of the political issues can be debated on the early clauses. The majority of Bills that go through the House--having been timetabled in effect by the Opposition--go through with reasonable scrutiny, considering the difficulties.
If we chose to have early timetabling for Bills, a series of abuses might arise. I have served on a large number of Committees and I have found amendment races particularly obnoxious. It is important that we should debate amendments at the right place in the Bill. If one has a timetable for amendments, there is a race to table the first amendment. If one tables an amendment to clause 27, for example, and the amendment says, "Insert at the beginning of the clause subject to subsection (1)(a)' ", someone else will try to table an amendment that will be debated even earlier and that does not lead to orderly debate.
It would be a retrograde step for the House if, as a matter of principle, responsibility for timetabling Bills was handed over from the Opposition to, in effect, the Government. If a Committee which had a majority of Government Members was appointed to timetable Bills, that is what we would be doing. If the Procedure Committee was suggesting that the responsibility should be handed over to a Committee composed of a majority of Opposition Members, I would not complain, but I am sure that Ministers would not be happy with that. I should not be happy about giving the Government more power over timetabling.
I shall now deal with the Committee's report on early-day motions. It seems that the House has not been well served by some of the trivial early-day motions that have appeared on the Order Paper, but the main point is that early-day motions are a public way of reflecting the informal activities of the House. It is not easy to tell constituents that one has had a word with the Minister and pressed the point : it does not sound convincing. Putting one's name on an early-day motion is a simple process, but it is a way of giving some form to the series of informal
Column 792processes that go on in the House. We often talk about the Division Lobbies, the Members' Lobby and Central Lobby, but we should realise that much of the process of Parliament is the informal lobbying that goes on. Early-day motions offer an opportunity for a formal way of dealing with that informal activity. That is not too high a price to pay.
It was suggested earlier that hon. Members who are suspended should suffer a longer period of suspension than that which is normally imposed. We should be careful about that, because, if suspensions were longer, we should be using the majority in the House to censure individual Members. Hon. Members should be accountable to their constituents and not too firmly accountable to the majority in the House. If suspensions were longer, they would be far more controversial and would cause more problems.
I ask the Leader of the House to use the Special Standing Committee procedure more frequently. I suggest that the forthcoming legislation on children would be a good opportunity to use that procedure. I welcome the opportunity to amend statutory instruments. At present, we are too often prepared to put into primary legislation the power for the Secretary of State to do things by order and by regulation. If the House were less willing to give Ministers that power in the first place, fewer problems would develop.
Finally, I should like the Leader of the House to think about the problems that occur with statements, especially if our proceedings are to be televised. It is not a satisfactory procedure for embargoed copies of White Papers and other documents to be given out to the lobby and to other newspaper correspondents, sometimes 24 hours beforehand and often on the morning of the day on which the statement is to be made, and then for Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen and minority parties to receive the same statements and documents perhaps just half an hour or an hour before the statement is made, but no other Members being able even to get hold of a copy until after the statement has been made.
If it is reasonable for journalists to be sufficiently briefed on matters so that they can write about them for the following morning's newspapers, it is reasonable that hon. Members should have the same opportunity to read the documents and ask questions about them. There is the procedure of the statement being given in the House, but there is often a wait of several weeks or months--sometimes even years--before there is a further opportunity to discuss those matters. It should be possible for hon. Members to receive such documents on at least the same terms as journalists.
There should be far more debate about most of the proceedings of the Select Committee on Procedure. Such debate should occur in an informal atmosphere first, and once there is a clear majority in the House for change, we should proceed with the legislation. We should not bemoan the fact that such things are not debated on the Floor of the House. What we should bemoan is the fact that the Procedure Committee has not convinced sufficient hon. Members to take an interest in its reports for there to be a full and frank informal debate before we get to the stage at which we should vote.
Column 793of the debate. I have been trying to win Weybridge for the Labour party, which is why I wrote to you. Could you appeal to hon. Members to make their contributions brief so that I can get in?
Mr. Speaker : I was about to rise to my feet when the hon. Gentleman gazumped me to say that I understand that the shadow Leader of the House will seek to catch my eye at about a quarter to 10. Quite a number of hon. Members have not yet spoken--some of whom served on the Committee--but I think it is quite important in such a debate that Members who did not serve on the Committee are also called to speak so that we may have their views as well.
Sir Ian Lloyd (Havant) : I hope that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) will forgive me if I do not follow too closely the specific points that he made. This is one of our more interesting debates, in which the currents of controversy move not across the Floor of the House like forked lightning, but up and down the Benches on either side rather like sheet lightning. The balance of opinion is sometimes rather interesting, if much more difficult to predict than usual. I shall resist the temptation to enter into the important, but in some ways private, fight that the Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir. B. Braine), has reinstated this evening.
However, I shall permit myself one reflection on the important procedural point that has been discussed in considerable depth. If the exploitation of procedure within the rules of order--it must always be within the rules of order because that is a fundamental premise--to oppose legitimate proposals, whether in the form of legislation or otherwise, is to be ruled out, we face a difficult problem. Naturally, like so many other hon. Members of all parties, I dislike such exploitation whenever it occurs. Furthermore, the public do not understand it and I do not think that they will ever. We must be extremely careful before we tighten the straitjacket of procedure on this House so severely that the patient--in this case Parliament--is suffocated. Having said that, I realise that to some extent I am undermining my own case on a number of the other points that I hope to make as briefly as I can.
I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) for his report--indeed, for all his serious reports. I have read most of them this afternoon and find myself in considerable agreement with a large proportion of their recommendations.
I share the regret of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell- Hyslop) that we are not debating specific proposals placed before the House for decision. As is so often the case, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House showed his usual courtesy and consideration and raised a fundamental point about procedure--the behaviour of hon. Members. My perspective is nowhere near as long as that of the Leader of the House or as long as that of many other hon. Members, but perhaps it is a little longer than the perspective of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).
A long perspective does not necessarily confer authority, except in your case, Mr. Speaker, because you
Column 794sit in the House for thousands of hours a year. Perhaps you spend more time in it than any other hon. Member, and therefore your perspective gives you special authority. Within the last few years the standard of behaviour in the House has declined. There has been a decline in courtesy, in good manners and, perhaps, a decline in that rarest of all commodities in this Chamber, wit.
Mr. Tony Banks rose --
"I trembled for the fame and fate of Parliament as I witnessed the extremely violent, disgraceful scene, in July, 1893, of hon. Members hitting each other."
The hon. Member for Havant (Sir I. Lloyd) has been in the House for a long time. Can he tell us when hon. Members last hit each other? That certainly puts into perspective the rather eccentric behaviour of my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) who left the House earlier today describing hon. Members as disciples of Onan and making strange gestures to Mr. Speaker.
Sir Ian Lloyd : Hon. Members hitting each other is not within my experience, and I hope that it will never be. It is always a little dangerous to quote from a decade in which, I think, Irish Members came here in an attempt to destroy Parliament. Fortunately for all of us, they failed. I will not go as far as to say that such an objective underlay the behaviour that we have seen, but Parliament serves no purpose whatever if none of us modifies our views or assumptions. Surely we come to the House to listen and to enlarge our experience and knowledge and, occasionally, to modify our assumptions and opinions. We cannot do that if we can never hear what anyone is saying.
I shall describe two phenomena which I am sure are familiar to all hon. Members. The House contains what I call the "What about" mob. That mob consists of hon. Members who say, "What about the IMF? What about inflation? What about unemployment, nurses and miners?" Such interventions are not worthy of a soap box debate in Hyde park and are singularly unworthy of the House. Surely we can bring to our debates qualities and standards better than, "What about?" Such behaviour denigrates and destroys what we are trying to do. The other phenomenon is the finger-pointing mafia. Some hon. Members seem to think that their intellectual arguments are enhanced by stabbing their fingers at Front-Bench spokesmen. That is bad mannered and does not add to the point or force of the argument. The less we see of it the better and the more Parliament will be pleased. When television arrives in due course the public will not want to see such behaviour because they would not like it at all.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : The hon. Gentlemen is complaining about mafia-like people pointing their fingers at the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. When I stand up with my hands in my pockets it is more than likely that one of the Tory yobbos from the goose- stepping tendency will tell me to take my hands out of my pockets. I am in a bit of a dilemma about what to do. If I were concerned about behaviour in this place, I would not be concerned about people making a point on
Column 795behalf of their class. I would be concerned about those who come trotting in here half drunk or half sober, whatever the case may be, coming out of the 16 bars, or trotting off on business trips to South Africa, paid for by the Botha Government. I regard that as much more important than somebody who has his hands in his pockets or who is poking a finger at others when he speaks.
Sir Ian Lloyd : The hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand my point. I sympathise with him if he is being shouted at by Members who tell him to take his hands out of his pockets, but I am not concerned about people who come here half sober or half drunk. I am much more concerned about people who come here half-witted.
The report on the calendar is interesting. It tells us that it is now over 10 years since the House had two weeks' recess at Easter or Whitsun, and the proposal that it makes for setting the calendar recommends that we should have a least one week at Easter and one week at Whitsun. I disagree with the Committee on that point. It is time that we became somewhat more generous to ourselves, particularly at Whitsun. I do not know what the opinion of the House is on that question, but I should happily trade 10 days in October for five additional days at Whitsun, and I sense that that finds some support in the House.
The real difficulty is this. We shall find more time--time lies at the heart of Parliament and much that we do here--if we spend a little more effort in trying to stop the waste of it. Parliamentary time, like energy, is something which is best found by conserving it. For example, I regard the second Division last night as a conspicuous example of the waste of 20 minutes of parliamentary time. It proved nothing to anyone and by the most simple procedural device, every point could have been satisfied. You, Mr. Speaker, could have asked the Liberals whether they would be willing to record their 20 votes against the majority. All that would have been needed would have been a yes, the Division would have been recorded and the great British public would have been none the wiser, or all the wiser. There would have been no fundamental difference to what we were doing. Other points, which I wish to make as quickly as possible, also concern time. In the report on the use of time on the Floor of the House, the key conclusion is that in paragraph 2, which states : "Compared with legislative bodies in other large democracies, the House of Commons continues to sit on more days per annum than any others."
That prompts the immediate query : Are we, as a country, for that reason better governed than the other large democracies? Different sides of the House will have different opinions in answer to that question. The report concludes :
"there needs to be the greatest possible efficiency in the use of the available time."
I wholeheartedly agree with that.
What are the facts? We waste time on a prodigious scale, and no more seriously than in four particular ways. The first, which has already been mentioned, is bogus points of order. We can do with far fewer of them and if, by other means, we can give hon. Members legitimate opportunities to raise legitimate points, we should do so and encourage them to do it in other ways.
Secondly, there is the tedious introduction of largely, or often, irrelevant parochial aspects and illustrations in hon.