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Sir Geoffrey Howe : That is why I treat my hon. Friend with such respect. The motion that I have moved is not the one to which my hon. Friend directs his gaze, which gives me the opportunity to consider it a little more if that is necessary.
The effect of motion No. 1 would be to prevent a private Member from moving a motion to amend or suspend Standing Orders, unless the House had previously agreed in the same Session that it was necessary or expedient to do so. In particular, it would prevent a private Member's motion from being used as a device to facilitate the passage of a private Member's Bill by providing additional time for it as exempted business, by giving it precedence over other private Members' Bills or by allocating specific time to it.
The Procedure Committee did not think that it would be acceptable to the House for private Members' motions to introduce significant procedural changes that could
Column 474affect the progress and priority of individual private Members' Bills. It thought that that would destroy the carefully balanced and well-understood arrangements for private Members' business.
Miss Widdecombe : My right hon. and learned Friend is talking about preventing a private Member from moving a motion. Does he agree that, in this instance, a private Member cannot bulldoze anything through the House? It all depends on the will of the House. Should not my right hon. and learned Friend say that he is preventing the whole sum of Back Benchers and everyone else from deciding whether they wish to allocate time to a particular motion? Is that not what he is really saying?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I am saying that the arrangements that are basically in place for the deployment of time between public and private business and the management of the time available for private Members' business are the result of a great deal of analysis, thought and experience over a long period. As the House knows, in November the Government responded to certain recommendations of the Procedure Committee by extending the time available for private Members in aggregate--I think, by one day. It would not be sensible to allow that set of arrangements to be disturbed by private Members in the way identified in the motion.
The Procedure Committee thought that the change that we are seeking to prevent would destroy the carefully balanced and well-understood arrangements for private Members' business. For example, a Bill introduced under the ten-minute rule procedure--which may not be set down for Second Reading until private Members successful in a ballot have had the opportunity to choose their slot for Second Reading--could be given precedence over a ballot Bill.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : No, but we do not think that the change would be sensible. The House has the opportunity to consider the matter today. Similarly, such a change could result in a Bill low in the ballot leap- frogging one that is higher up in the ballot. The motion provides a balance for two other motions, which clear the decks, so far as is possible, to allow unimpeded consideration of private Members' business within the accepted procedures. This motion, which forms part of the trio, ensures that those procedures are maintained and not altered to favour a particular private Member's Bill. More generally, the motion precludes Standing Orders being amended by a private Member's motion. I agree with the Procedure Committee that, on balance, it is not appropriate that our procedures should be amended in that way.
I emphasise that the changes do not preclude general or specific procedural changes being the subject of a private Member's motion, but would prevent the motion from being couched in terms that could implement immediate change. Private Members would retain the right to express opinion on such matters, but not to make changes without wider support in the House than, perhaps, a low vote on a Friday at the initiative of one Member.
Mr. Beith : If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to observe well-understood and established practices, does he not think that the Government should be subject to at least some degree of similar restraint? The
Column 475Government can, on a low vote in the House on a Friday, similarly move motions that change Standing Orders or--this happens more often--vary their impact or exempt certain business from their impact. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is worried about the balance being changed, why has he sat back and watched the balance shift in favour of the Government on similar matters over a long period?
Miss Widdecombe rose--
I shall deal with the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon- Tweed (Mr. Beith) when he has had the opportunity to speak to it.
Taking the three motions together, and also taking account of the Sessional Order moved on 22 November 1989, they ensure that additional time is provided for private Members' business and that that business, as well as its timing and precedence, is--so far as possible--protected from interruption or disruption by other matters or by the misuse of otherwise legitimate procedural devices. That is the basis on which I believe the three motions provide an outcome that is both fair and balanced.
There are two motions dealing with ten-minute Bills. The effect of motion No. 4 would be that no ten-minute Bill would be introduced on Budget day. The slot would not be lost, but would be moved to the Monday following Budget day. In the unlikely event that the date of the Budget was to be announced so late that notice of a ten-minutes rule application had already been given for that day, the ten-minute Bill would be moved to the following Monday.
As the Procedure Committee suggests, I think that the proposal would be for the convenience of most hon. Members. It would not restrict the rights of Back Benchers, but would preserve them, given the various methods used to avoid a ten-minute Bill on Budget day. I know that some Members may relish the prospect of a Budget day slot, when the House is unusually full, but I think that for most Members it would be an unwarranted disruption and irritation. Speaking as an ex-Chancellor, I can confirm that I always welcomed the opportunity to get into my Budget speech without having to wait until after the presentation of a ten-minute Bill.
Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West) : I speak with some experience of this matter, because I think that I was the last Member to have a ten- minute Bill on Budget day--back in 1985, when the Chancellor was the right hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson). My recollection is that I received a very warm reception from hon. Members on both sides of the House. Indeed, the House gave me leave to introduce my Bill, despite the fact that it was critical of the Chancellor's handling of the economy.
I cannot think of any justification for the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposal. In previous years, the
Column 476Chancellor took retaliatory action by using some of his messenger boys--parliamentary private secretaries in the Treasury and elsewhere--to abuse the system by squatting in the Public Bill Office, on a rota basis, sometimes for several days and nights. They never had any intention of moving a motion. When it was too late for another hon. Member to take the slot, the Tory Member withdrew the motion and the House was deprived of the opportunity of a ten-minute rule slot on Budget day.
That was an abuse of the House through dog-in-the-manger tactics. It is wrong that the Leader of the House should want to move the goalposts and further limit the opportunity for Back-Bench Members to obtain a slot on Budget day. Does it have anything to do with the televising of the House?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The hon. Gentleman disproves his own case. If he is the only hon. Member ever to have presented a ten-minute rule Bill on Budget day, that proves that it is neither a substantial nor a long-felt wish for democratic rights. The hon. Gentleman was an eccentric in that achievement, and the fact that no one had done the same before shows that the overriding wish of the House has always been to get straight on to the Chancellor's Budget.
Several Hon. Members rose --
In making strenuous efforts subsequently to ensure that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West did not have an opportunity to repeat his success, and that subsequent Budgets were introduced without interruption, certain hon. Members performed a public service, legitimised by the recommendation of the Procedure Committee--and now by the House, when it votes.
The fifth motion was the subject of an intervention by the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). He has now come back in time to study that question. The effect of the motion will be to replace the existing first come, first served, queuing system with a ballot. Consideration of the case for that change arose in the last Session, when right hon. and hon. Members began queuing for increasingly long periods to secure slots for ten-minute Bills.
Mr. Winnick rose --
Mr. Corbyn rose --
The first come, first served, system led to friction because of the way in which right hon. and hon. Members took the place of others in the queue. It also caused difficulties for the House authorities. Because right hon. and hon. Members queued in the Public Bill Office conference room, it could not be used for its proper purpose, and it became necessary for the Clerk of the
Column 477House to inform Mr. Speaker that the work of the Public Bill Office was being affected--and he does not often make reports of that dramatic impact.
Mr. Winnick : As there are ballots for Adjournment debates and for oral questions, is there any reason why there should not be a ballot for ten-minute Bills? What is so holy and sacred about queueing all night? My view is not influenced in the least by the fact that the last time I did so I contracted shingles the following week.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Walsall, North, because it illustrates one style. In the hon. Members for Walsall, North and for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), one sees one hon. Member who is lusting for the right to queue all night, and another who is happy that I should take away that opportunity.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : No. I must be allowed to develop that point. My predecessor as Leader of the House was originally disposed to move a similar motion last summer, but the problem eased and he did not do so. It is obvious that this motion evokes strong feelings among some Back Benchers on both sides of the House. The existing arrangements provide an opportunity for right hon. and hon. Members who hold strong views on an issue to do something about it. They see the chance of 10 minutes of prime time as a reward for persistence and initiative--one that they would like to retain--rather than simply good fortune in a ballot.
Mr. Corbyn : I have introduced seven ten-minute Bills by means of queueing in the Public Bill Office conference room--although better facilities, such as heating, could be provided there. However, I have never been successful with a private Member's motion or a Bill under the ballot procedure, which I have used at every opportunity since entering the House.
I am not complaining of my lack of success in the ballot but making the point that I have been successful with ten-minute Bills by making an effort as an ordinary Back Bencher whereas I have never been successful under the ballot procedure. The motion will remove the opportunity for initiative.
I have identified the fact that a choice must be made between those who want a reward for their persistence and initiative and those who are prepared to rely on a ballot. Although persistence is commendable as a general virtue, we should not preserve a massive endurance test-- particularly if it is likely to inconvenience the Clerk of the House. I should not wish to see a return to the situation that existed last summer. However, I am conscious of the feelings of right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House. I have to strike a balance between the rights that they wish to cherish, the effective working of the House, and the inconvenience that can be caused to Officers and other officials.
I am standing even further back from the fifth motion, which I have not yet moved, than from the others--and I shall be interested to hear the views of right hon. and hon.
Column 478Members on it. If there is a strong feeling that the existing arrangements should be maintained, I am prepared not to move it.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : My hon. Friend will no doubt have an opportunity to make a speech herself. I am trying to explain that I am so conscious of the balance of feeling on both sides of the House that I am willing to reach a conclusion in the light of the opinion that is expressed. I hope that my hon. Friend will contain her enthusiasm until an opportunity arises for her to speak.
If there were to be a recurrence of last summer's situation, I would not hesitate to bring the final motion before the House again. However, provided that we can maintain the existing balance, I do not intend to press it.
Miss Widdecombe rose --
Subject to my comments on the fifth motion, I believe that all five would, if passed, bring added clarity to our procedures and, taken together, be to the benefit of the House as a whole. Taken together, they do not unduly restrict or erode Back Benchers' rights but instead protect them by providing for private Members' business to be considered on its merits, without the intrusion of other matters. To balance that, it will not be possible for private Members to seek to alter the procedures of the House to benefit any particular private Member's Bill.
The motion relating to Budget day will preserve the slot for ten-minute Bills that would otherwise be lost. As to the fifth motion and the choice between endurance or ballot, I am ready to listen to the views of the House, because I should not want to press ahead if it does not have general support.
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland) : The time available for private Members' Bills is already limited but is nevertheless very important. There is general agreement that that time should be safeguarded whenever possible. When I escaped from the minefield of the rate support grant, I little realised that I was entering another minefield of procedural argument that crosses the Floor of the House.
It is not surprising that discussions about making changes to the time allowed to private Members are themselves contentious. In the past, private Members' time has been used to introduce legislation on abortion, the abolition of hanging, regional policy, wildlife and countryside issues, and the protection of badgers. Those were all highly controversial and important issues. I support the Leader of the House's view that, whatever else we want, we do not want any diminution of the time available to private Members to set the agenda of the House.
Column 479agree that it should be increased so that Bills can be debated? That would end the nonsense of the objection system and provide an opportunity not just to present a Bill in 10 minutes but to debate it, and allow the introduction of legislation by Back Benchers. Does my hon. Friend agree that the balance has shifted away from right hon. and hon. Members to the Executive who occasionally inform--or, rather, misinform--the House about their actions?
Dr. Cunningham : Although I agree with my hon. Friend that we should have more time, that is not one of the points under discussion today. As I understand from the proposals on the Order Paper, private Members are getting slightly more time in the House. That is to be welcomed. As for more time on ten-minute Bills, the Leader of the House has made it clear that he does not intend to move his proposal for ballots for ten-minute Bills. Although I have no objection to a change in procedure for balloting for ten-minute Bills, I am quite content that we should allow hon. Members more time to discuss the proposal.
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East) : Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the valid point he is making about Back Benchers' time--I am sure that all hon. Members agree that Back Benchers should have as much time as possible--does he deprecate the fact that uniquely, on Tuesday, a Front- Bench spokesman presented a ten-minute Bill?
Dr. Cunningham : No, I do not deprecate that. As I have said at the Dispatch Box in respect of applications under Standing Order No. 20, every hon. Member has the same rights in these matters. I do not accept the argument that a Front Bencher who wishes to raise an important issue--a constituency issue, for example--should be denied the opportunity available to other hon. Members to use the procedures of the House to pursue it or to raise it.
Mr. Skinner : Perhaps I take a different view on these motions from that of my hon. Friend, but that is not the point I am making right now. The ten-minute Bill on Tuesday would have been moved by a Labour Front Bencher in any case. The hon. Member for Berkshire, East thinks that the person who got the ten-minute Bill was a Back Bencher, but it was a Front Bencher--my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott)--who passed it on to another Front Bencher.
Dr. Cunningham : My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it was my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) who got the ten-minute slot in the first place. However, perhaps I can move on. It is no secret that usually, but not always, there is great controversy, not on party political lines but across the Floor of the House, when private Members' Bills are brought before the House. We know that there are alliances across the Floor of the House for and against
Column 480many of those controversial matters. It seems today that, although right hon. and hon. Members present have been diametrically opposed on certain issues and on the merits of Bills, they seem to be joined together to defend the status quo on the procedures. In other words, they want to reserve the opportunity to use, or perhaps in some case to abuse, the procedures of the House to defeat controversial issues in private Members' time because they do not agree with the merits of a Bill before the House.
I welcome the three motions referring to the moving of the writ, the presentation of petitions and the use of private Members' motions to change Standing Orders because they are a serious and welcome attempt to safeguard precious private Members' time. The proposals come with the recommendation of the Procedure Committee, which I also applaud. Those three motions are worthy of general support. I have already referred to ballots for ten- minute Bills. I shall not waste any more time on that, as the Leader of the House has said that he will not pursue that matter today. I turn now to ten -minute Bills on Budget day. In 1981 my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) introduced a ten-minute Bill when the Leader of the House was Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will recall that occasion. I also well remember the amusing and witty speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), which he rightly said was enjoyed by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, with the possible exception of the right hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) who was the hapless victim of that speech. However, I personally support the view that on a day as important as Budget day we should not have to wait any additional time for the presentation of the Budget by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As there will be no diminution of the time available for ten-minute Bills--it will simply not be possible to introduce them on Budget day--I support that proposal.
It is inevitable that proposals to change the procedures of the House will meet strong opposition and be regarded as controversial. I have never been a fan or a supporter of the more arcane aspects of procedure and the way in which we conduct our business. I believe that the whole matter of procedure and how we deal with business in the House is long overdue a fundamental overhaul, and I hope that we can achieve that before much longer. For the life of me I do not believe that our constituents think that the way in which we proceed on many occasions is sensible in the interests of either good legislative scrutiny of the Executive or producing good legislation. I am sure that if we asked our constituents they would like a breath of fresh air blown through the Chamber and other aspects of procedure in the House of Commons. Although by comparison to what I have been calling for these measures are relatively small and even modest, I welcome the reports of the Procedure Committee and offer general support to the propositions enunciated by the Leader of the House and I hope that the four motions that I support can be determined today. If that is possible, I shall certainly vote for them.
Column 481forward two debates on procedure within four months or so--twice in this Session of Parliament--when previous Leaders of the House have not been able to find time for reports that have stood for months and years without being debated. I welcome that immensely.
I was delighted to hear the shadow Leader of the House's commitment to reform of procedure. I have tried time and again to drag the procedures of the House screaming into the 20th century. I welcome the fact that we have support from the Opposition Front Bench spokesman. We have not always had that in the past, and it is a most encouraging step forward.
Let me make it absolutely clear that one of the important principles, as any hon. Member who has sat on the Procedure Committee will agree, has been that the objective of the Procedure Committee has been at all times to try to defend the rights and the time available to Back Benchers. That is one of the major factors always in the minds of those on the Procedure Committee, because only they can protect Back Benchers from the power of the Executive. This debate is important, because that is exactly what the motions are intended to do.
It is immensely important that motions 1, 2 and 3 are seen as a package ; they must not be taken individually. In the report of the Procedure Committee it is clearly stated that they must be introduced only as a package. What is the reason for that? After the debate on 20 January 1989, Mr. Speaker said :
"I hope that we shall not go through this kind of thing again." He said later :
"It is for the Leader of the House to put his proposals to the Procedure Committee. I am sure that it will consider them."--[ Official Report, 20 January 1989 ; Vol. 145, c. 661-62.] We then had a letter from the Leader of the House asking us to consider how we could defend private Members' time.
All this arose because of somebody trying to "cheat" or "find a way round" the normal procedure for private Members' Bills, and those who were against that saying they would find a way of stopping it. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was most effective. When an hon. Member introduced a motion on a private Members' day to try to give special power to her Bill and put it above the Bills of other Members in the ballot, that was seen by many hon. Members as being unfair. The hon. Member for Bolsover said that a way would be found of putting an end to this, and that is exactly what happened, and the House decided that that procedure would not be followed.
Arising from that, therefore, we have brought forward this balance. We have said in the first motion that a private Member will not be able to gain special powers by a private Member's motion that goes beyond the normal allotted time. It would be wrong for that Member to be able to obtain that time in the first instance. If the Member can get the approval of the House twice, that is another matter. But, if we take that power away from Members, we must at the same time try to establish the balance that no other Member should be able to interfere with the private Member's motion time either by introducing petitions or by moving writs in order to take that time away. We are attempting to ensure that when a Member wins time for a private Member's motion he or she will be able
Column 482to have all the time from 10 o'clock until 2.30 uninterrupted on the motion ; or, if it is a private Member's Bill, that time cannot be eaten into. If either of these is limited, the balance is taken away and preference given to one side.
I have tried to point out to the House that these three motions all hang together and that in our judgement it would be wrong to amend them, or to accept two and leave one out. Indeed, if the House wished to do that I would say that we ought not to have the other two either. We either have the package as a whole or we have nothing at all.
Miss Widdecombe : I will ignore, until I have some chance to contribute to the debate, the rather vulgar references to cheating and queue jumping. But is there not a very clear distinction between the three motions, inasmuch as two are deliberately designed to obstruct and one is designed to take away the will of the House? If the House believes that a Member is trying to cheat or queue jump, the House can say no ; if it thinks otherwise, it can say yes. Why does the Procedure Committee think that the House should not be able to decide the issue itself?
Sir Peter Emery : I am amazed. I have spent some time trying to explain the point and it has been entirely ignored. We are not taking powers away ; we are stopping anybody getting round the procedure. Any hon. Member who believes otherwise has either not understood or not been in the House long enough to know the normal procedure.
Sir Peter Emery : I understood it very well. The hon. Lady is afraid that she or other hon. Members will not be given special power to put something to the House to extend their right and enable them to further a Bill for longer. We are saying that this is "cheating"--that is in inverted commas and it was in inverted commas when I first said it--getting round the normal understanding of the ballot and the allocation of time to private Members. Private Members must realise that if they want a massive amount of time for their private Bills, they stand very little chance of getting them through, unless they can get general agreement.
The next two motions concern ten-minute Bills. The first concerns a ten- minute Bill on a Budget day. The Procedure Committee believed that it was the wish of most Back Benchers to get on to the Budget, and that they did not want this to be interfered with by the jollity of a ten-minute Bill speech. The Committee wanted to ensure that, if a Bill was not to be moved on Budget day, the slot for a private Member would not be taken away ; in other words, private Members' time would not be lost. I am delighted that the Government have been willing to move in that direction and even allow a ten-minute Bill to be introduced on a Monday, which is not the normal time, in order to ensure that Back-Bench time is not taken away.
Perhaps I should remind Members what the ten-minute Bill is really about. It is intended to give Back-Bench Members the opportunity to introduce legislation, but if one analyses the facts, one sees that this is not what is happening at the moment. In the last Parliament, 194 ten-minute Bills were introduced on the Floor of the House. Permission was refused for only 23 at the time of their introduction. Only two of the 194 reached the statute book.
Column 483Mr. Skinner : One was yours.
The slot for the ten-minute Bill has altered from being a means of satisfying the desire of a Member to get legislation through. It has become a slot in which Back-Bench or other Members can make a ten-minute speech in prime time on a political issue.