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Column 41There are other obvious areas for reform. More effective use could be made of scrutiny by Committee. If we are seeking to gain constituency time, the proposal to do the House's Friday work on Wednesday mornings merits consideration. The proposal has no balance of advantage between Government and Opposition, although other people will no doubt disagree. Obviously, it is essential that we protect the credibility and reputation of Parliament and that we focus our energies on real issues rather than waste time for its own sake in a boring and anarchic way. It is surprising that some hon. Members, who claim to be the most radical, are among those most opposed to change.
The Liberal Democrat motion rightly refers to the Government's "systematic erosion of Parliament's role in the consideration of legislation".
The most blatant example of that was the way in which the increase in employees' national insurance contributions and the changes to the statutory sick pay regime were bludgeoned through the House before Christmas. As a result of that heavy-handed action, the Labour party broke off normal relations with the Government. By contrast, the Liberal Democrats condemned the Government's actions yet carried on conducting business in the normal way. They complain about Government action, but offer no effective opposition.
Similarly, the Government guillotined the Finance Bill very tightly, allowing for a range of abuses, including slipping in amendments at the last minute under the name of Tory Back Benchers. They manipulated the guillotine to avoid Ministers having to explain tricky matters to the Committee. Tory Members filibustered debates prior to those that would be awkward to the Executive, thereby ensuring that controversial issues were not discussed in Committee, particularly the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel, which was almost not discussed at all.
At the end of that farce, the Liberal Democrat spokesman felt able to tell the House that he broadly approved of the way in which the Committee had proceeded to the guillotine. The views of the right hon. Member for Berwick -upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) are at variance with the contents of the motion.
Mr. Spearing : Does my hon. Friend agree that the disgraceful way in which the Government used their majority to timetable those measures offers a salutary warning to those who believe that timetabling should be more frequently and routinely used in the House ?
Mr. Brown : The lessons to be learnt from the way in which the Finance Bill was treated in Committee this year were not lost on me, of all people in this place, and are conditioning the current discussions. My hon. Friend's warning is well taken. It is not possible for the Opposition somehow to sacrifice their rights and hand over the management of business to the Executive.
Mr. Beith : Has the hon. Gentleman talked to any of the many groups that watched the passage of the Finance Bill with particular interest because they are affected by it and have to implement it ? Is he aware of the extent to which they found that the timetable made it much more feasible
Column 42for them to deal with hon. Members because they knew when amendments were to be debated ? Will he recognise that my comment that the timetable for the Bill had, in general, worked, which I stand by, was qualified only by my assertion that the ability of other groups to vary the operation of the timetable would have improved it further still--a factor which is inherent in the Jopling proposals ?
Mr. Brown : I have in front of me what the right hon. Gentleman said in the debate on 20 April 1994. He did not make that latter point, although I appreciate that it is his view. He is a veteran of many Finance Bills. He is right to say that there should be certainty about the timetable so that the outside world can make specialist representations. I know that he shares my view that the best way to deal with the matter is to have a separate Taxes Management Bill dealing with the details of long, omnibus Bills point by point and measure by measure so that experts from outside can talk to us and explain their views.
That does not mean that I yield one inch on the way in which Parliament handles controversial matters such as tax increases or decreases--tax decreases before elections and spectacular increases after elections. Those matters are politically contentious and it is no use suggesting that they can be dealt with by consensus, because they cannot. People have strong views about such matters. It would better serve democracy if we first took expert testimony on finance, home affairs and Department of the Environment measures and proceeded in a less adversarial way.
The Liberals' motion makes some complaints about civil service involvement in political activity. I agree with the points that it makes. It is important that the public service remains independent and uncorrupted. Britain had a strong tradition of independent public service, which prolonged government by a single party has eroded. A letter from Mr. Bob Welsh to the social services inspectorate in the Department of Health states :
"A continuing flow of positive messages about community care would pay political dividends at both local and national levels". That clearly oversteps the mark for a public servant. Nor do I think that it is proper to use parliamentary draftsmen to draw up copious amendments for Government Back Benchers to table to private Member's legislation, which the Government then pretend they do not oppose in principle.
There is a case for reform, including reconsidering the procedure for Prime Minister's Question Time. The inescapable fact, however, is that the job of being a Member of Parliament will always be demanding and is likely to become more, rather than less, so. No reform of the House will ever get around that fact.
We would also betray our responsibilities to the British people if we ever let Parliament become a part-time institution, relieving the Executive of the burden of scrutiny. I must tell the Liberal Democrats that no amount of neogothic self-righteous whingeing will ever change either of those facts.
Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale) : My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that he had taken note of a certain phrase in the opening speech from the Liberal Democrat Benches, in which the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said that he had "relatively few things to say". I also wrote that comment
Column 43down, and it occurred to me at the time that the hon. Gentleman might well have said that he had relatively few things in his head. The hon. Gentleman suggested that he does not like the cut and thrust of our proceedings in this House, which has gone on for centuries, and wants to turn this place into a hemicycle to try to dampen everything down. If he sat and watched the proceedings of the United States Congress, a forum which is based very much on that approach, he would find that Members of Congress largely complain about the boring blandness of the Chamber and about the fact that all the real work goes on in Committee. I cannot think of a worse fate for this House than to be consigned to that sort of blandness. We repeatedly hear from hon. Members such as the hon. Member for North Cornwall of their dislike for political cut and thrust. We should never forget that there are still millions of people around the world who would give their back teeth for the cut and thrust of our debates and for the democracy that we enjoy. I am sorry to say this, but it seems that many hon. Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches--and there are some here today who are distinguished exclusions from what I am about to say-- seem to prefer the political actions of a dark night with a stiletto to the cut and thrust that is so much a part of our proceedings.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that as we have an adversarial Chamber, anyone who is elected to the House must decide which side they are on, and that such a decision does not come easily to many Liberal Democrats ?
Mr. Jopling : My hon. Friend could not have put it better. I welcome this debate and the Liberal Democrat motion for one reason : it allows us again to discuss the report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, of which I had the honour to be Chairman. We have not debated the report for two years. I shall come back to that in a moment ; first, however, I simply want to say a little more about the motion that we are debating.
When I first read the motion, it seemed to be a rushed job. It was not well drafted and little thought had gone into it. That became clear in my mind when I received a note from my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, to which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House referred. It was a note that my right hon. Friend had written to the hon. Member for North Cornwall in which he says--I have his permission to quote it
"I am sorry that when you had a word with me on Wednesday evening you did not mention the intention of your party to be arranging the debate."
I will not accuse the hon. Gentleman. I cannot believe that Mr. Tyler rose
Mr. Jopling : I shall give way in a moment. I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman did that out of discourtesy or deviousness--I grant him that. All I can say is that that demonstrates that his is a rushed, botched -up motion which should be thrown out on its ear.
Mr. Tyler : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am sure that he will be aware that the date for this debate was offered to the Liberal Democrats only on Wednesday. It was therefore impossible for my hon. Friends and me to indicate to the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, for whom I have a high regard, the intention to debate this issue.
Mr. Tyler rose
In my experience, the Liberal Democrats always know within a few weeks that they are to be offered a half-day debate, and they always have a motion thought out and ready. Perhaps they do not think ahead as they used to.
One part of the motion that demonstrates that it is a botched-up job is the reference to Prime Minister's Question Time. If ever there was a time not to table a motion criticising the format, this is it. Anyone can criticise the format of Prime Minister's Question Time ; for many years, it has occupied better minds than those of hon. Members here today and no one has ever been able to come up with a better way of doing things. Let us hope that we can find one. It does not take a genius to criticise the present arrangement for Prime Minister's Question Time. But, given that things are at last--and helpfully, I hope--moving, this seems to me to be the most stupid time at which to criticise the format.
Mr. Dalyell : There was a very different time in the history of Prime Minister's Questions--the time when the Prime Minister of the day would transfer any matter that was not directly relevant to the job of Prime Minister. The absolutely horrendous open question puts a completely different complexion on Prime Minister's Question Time. The two are as different as chalk and cheese.
Mr. Jopling : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who has been in the House marginally longer than I have, will agree that, if we can find a better way of running Prime Minister's Question Time, we should do it. I welcome the initiative of the Procedure Committee, which has gone some way towards that.
Mr. Winnick Will the right hon. Gentleman give way ?
Another thing that surprised me about the motion was its attack on Parliament's
"ability to hold the Executive to account".
As the motion says that, some credit should be given to the departmental Select Committees which were set up in 1980. As the House may remember-- although my old friend Norman St. John-Stevas claims that he set them up--I undertook all the negotiations for setting up the Select Committees with the then Opposition Chief Whip.
Column 45I believe that the Select Committees have dramatically changed the ability of the House to question the Executive. As the House knows, I am a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee so I have some practical experience of this. I was also a member of two Select Committees--the Agriculture Committee and the Science and Technology Committee--during the famous Crossman experiment. I was sorry that they did not survive, but I am, and continue to be, a strong advocate of the Select Committee system.
I also have the advantage of having had to sit on the sharp end of the Select Committees ; as a departmental Minister, I was frequently cross- examined very hard by them. They have made a dramatic change to the preparation that Ministers undertake before they face the House. Any Minister who has had to sit in front of a Select Committee and be cross- examined will know that it is something that no previous Ministers before the early 1980s ever had to do.
Mr. Winnick : I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who has given way on several occasions. Does he agree that, although the departmental Select Committees undoubtedly do excellent work, the Chamber must be the daily focus when we are sitting of the differences between the political parties, and that Prime Minister's Question Time, whatever its format, is bound to be the subject of intense controversy and the time at which the most controversial subjects are raised ? There is no reason why we should apologise for the fact that hon. Members on both sides of the House raise matters that we believe are of the greatest importance, or for the fact that there is some noise. Would not it also be useful if the serious newspapers reported parliamentary proceedings, not simply Prime Minister's Question Time ?
Mr. Jopling : I am delighted for the first time in my life publicly to support everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. He and I have been in the House many years. I agree with what he said--indeed, I referred to that point a little earlier when I said that I hoped that we would not move to the bland American experience, which does not match the cut and thrust of our parliamentary proceedings. It occurred to me that in his arguments about the problems of Parliament in getting facts and information, the hon. Member for North Cornwall ought logically to have advocated a freedom of information Bill. I did not hear him expound that argument, although it seemed to be at the centre of what he was trying to say. He referred to the Pergau affair. I do not want to say too much about it as a member of the Select Committee which is currently examining the matter and preparing a report. The hon. Gentleman referred to a temporary entanglement. I make the point to him that the moment that Ministers discovered that there was a temporary entanglement, strenuous and in some ways rather harsh steps were taken to get rid of it, which reflected nothing but credit on the Government. It was clear that an entanglement had been arrived at which ought not to have happened.
Sir Harold Walker (Doncaster, Central) : The right hon. Gentleman has provoked me with his references to freedom of information and the work of the Committee to which he belongs. Only today, I listened to a discussion on the radio about a prison which is due to open in my constituency. All kinds of revelations are common knowledge in the United States and these reports have been published about the prison, but the Home Office refuses to
Column 46divulge in this country any of the information that is available to the public in the United States. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will have a look at that example.
Mr. Jopling : I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman's local newspapers will have heard what he has said. I cannot comment on it. I have no doubt that his local radio and television stations will at this moment be agog and will make sure that his intervention is recorded in the 6 o'clock news.
Let me make just a few comments about the report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House. First, history : a unanimous report was published by a Committee representing the three principal parties. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) was a most distinguished member of that Committee. There was a debate in the House before the last election in which broad support was expressed for the unanimous recommendation.
Shortly after the election, an early-day motion was signed by 215 Members. I think that I speak reasonably accurately when I say that 120 of them or thereabouts were Opposition Members. We had another debate in July 1992. The current Leader of the House accepted about 85 per cent. of what the Committee had recommended. That was the high water point. Since then, the report has made little progress. I think that everyone in the House knows that the block to its progress comes from a small number of Members. I think that the Opposition Whips Office is one of those areas in which there is a small redoubt of opposition to the report. I shall not say any more about that because I really do not want to muddy the waters at this stage.
Since our debate in the summer of 1992, the Government could easily have ramrodded the findings of the report through the House. I know from being around the House during the past two years that there is broad support for the recommendations right across the House. There is no week in the House when I do not have three or four Members from each side asking me, "When will the recommendations of your Committee be accepted by the House ?"
The Government could perfectly well have ramrodded the report through, but they have not done so. Because they have not done so, they have been subjected to the short-term criticism to which the hon. Member for North Cornwall treated us today. I hope that the Government will stick to the policies that the Leader of the House expounded today. My right hon. Friend can be perfectly sure that, if he had ramrodded the proposals through the House, the same Liberal Democrat Members would have talked about a travesty of democracy. We know their tactics. That is what they would have done.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will know that during the past two years I have used whatever influence I have to do my utmost to prevent the Government from ramrodding the proposals through the House. I have consistently appealed to my right hon. Friend privately not to ramrod them through. I am sure that that has been right.
Like a few other people here, I was a Member of the House during the Crossman experiment that began when Richard Crossman was Leader of the House from 1966. The proposals that Richard Crossman made never had a broad consensus. As a result, they were made to be unworkable. The Select Committee on Sittings of the
Column 47House always knew that. I think that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will bear me out when I say that often during the deliberations of that Select Committee, we discussed the Crossman experience and agreed that we should go for a broad consensus if we wanted the recommendations to stick. Of course, one can never get unanimity. I have forgotten which member of the Committee referred to the need for unanimity. I think that it was the Liberal Chief Whip. He rightly made the point that one could never could get unanimity on such matters. However, one has to get as close to unanimity as possible. It is essential to get that broad support.
Mr. Dalyell : Just to be fair, as the late Dick Crossman's Parliamentary Private Secretary, may I remind the right hon. Gentleman that distinguished Members on both sides of the House said one thing and then changed their minds ? If the shade of Iain Macleod were here, he would confess to that.
Mr. Jopling : I have no recollection, because I was an extremely junior Member in those days, of whether that was true of the discussions and agreements that took place before the proposals were introduced. I do know, however, that right across the Opposition Back Benches there was a dislike of the proposals--although I accept that those on the Front Bench accepted it.
Sir Dudley Smith : I intervene as one of the less distinguished people who were here at that time--as opposed to the powers that be, to whom the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) referred. The proposal was disliked by Members of all parties. The morning sittings failed because people on both sides of the House did not turn up and do their job.
The Select Committee's report was balanced. We sought to balance the interests of Government and Opposition and I still believe that the recommendations did that. I have never fully understood why a few hon. Members oppose the proposals. I think that the main opposition is to the timetabling of Bills, but I remind the House that the Select Committee was not specific about that. The Select Committee said that we ought to discuss further how timetabling should be introduced and referred to the Select Committee on Procedure report of 1986.
If the Opposition do not like timetabling, let us not forget that the Government could implement the rest of the report's recommendations perfectly well without it, because they already have huge powers to introduce timetabling if they so desire. In the days when I was Chief Whip, I was very anxious that the Government should never exceed Michael Foot's famous record for timetabling--I think it was five timetable motions in a day. In the early 1980s, I tried my best to ensure that the Government never exceeded that record for guillotines. Since then, there have been many of them and no doubt the
Column 48House is moving, to a much greater extent, towards accepting them. But timetabling of Bills could be left out, as the Government would still have all those powers.
Leaving aside some of the shortcomings of this debate, I welcome the opportunity to give a push to some of the report's
recommendations. The House has demonstrated considerable patience by trying to wait for a move towards a broad consensus and I hope that that moment has now arrived. I only hope that the present talks will make all our patience entirely worth while.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : I have frequently heard the Labour Whips' Office referred to by colourful names but redoubt is not one of them. If I appear to be picking up on some of the supposed objections to some aspects of our parliamentary procedure, I hope that I shall be acquitted of doing so on behalf of those venerable ladies and gentlemen, most of whom I get on with very well, but very few of whom would suggest that I spoke on their behalf.
The procedure of the House of Commons is an esoteric subject, on which Members frequently hold forth when they have astonishingly little knowledge of how it actually works. Recently, I was honoured to be asked to go to Kenya to talk about parliamentary procedure. The Clerk of one of our Commonwealth Parliaments was holding forth at great length, partly because he had toothache, about the need for Members of Parliament to understand procedure. He said that it should not be possible for people to become Members of Parliament unless they understood it. I was asked to comment and said that I was sure that that ought to be the way, but that it would rule out 50 per cent. of the House of Commons and a very distinguished gentleman added, "Two thirds."
The way in which we order our business is fundamental to the way in which we take important political decisions. I have become increasingly disturbed by the suggestion that the House can somehow be organised as if it were a pea factory, with people pushing in inputs at one end, running a straightforward manufacturing line through and producing a nice, evenly balanced and beautifully prepared result at the other. That is not the way that it should work. We are here to represent our constituents, who have varied views and real interests. I am concerned that a consensus appears to be developing that will limit the powers of Back-Bench Members to express those views openly and with fervour.
Many of my hon. Friends sitting on these Benches today, let alone those on the Conservative Benches, could be numbered as part of the awkward squad. My very good hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has frequently used the procedures of the House to put over important points that both Front Benches were in danger of glossing over. Therefore, it behoves those of us who have been here a long time and have watched the development of various changes in procedure to look closely at what such changes entail.
I am strongly opposed to the timetabling of Bills. Frankly, that is not because I do not want to go home early. I would be happy to go home at a reasonable hour every night, but I understand that the work of Members of Parliament is becoming even more essential because of the powers that the Executive are taking every day. The Government have set out to hide vast areas of information.
Column 49They have changed the business of the civil service, so that there are an increasing number of agencies, which are made up of civil servants but are not answerable to the House of Commons in the way that they once were.
Hansard , which is absolutely essential to many of our constituents because of the information that it contains, increasingly does not have the routine answers--in detailed statistical and political terms--that enable people outside this place to know what the Government are doing in every sphere. The habit of sloughing off responsibility to executives of "next steps" agencies is increasing and can only make it more difficult for Members of Parliament to represent their constituents properly, and that should concern us very much.
Any move that either puts the provision of information a step further away or arranges the procedures of the House in such a way that only limited time can be given to the examination of a Bill can only be a derogation of power from this Chamber and should be considered very carefully.
I was here at the time of the Crossman experiment and the theory behind it was sensible. I listen to Members who say that we should have a proper working day and should organise ourselves completely differently. When do they deal with their correspondence ? Who are these Members who are so free of constituency duties that they do not need the mornings to reply to letters from constituents and follow up case work ? When do they sit on Committees ? Do they not sit on any Committee ? Do they never turn up for work on any of the European Standing Committees ? Frankly, if that is the case, their advice is not much help.
There have been some useful modifications to our procedure. The European Standing Committees are a sensible development. If they do not work as well as they should, Members of this House must answer for it. If more Members used their right to turn up at European Committees and to ask the Minister detailed, factual questions for an hour, they would get far more information about what was happening to European legislation. They choose not to exercise that power, but that does not mean that it does not exist.
I want the Leader of the House seriously to consider a means of developing the powers of the European Standing Committees so that they have the right not only to study legislation but to amend what is brought before them and to ensure that it is debated on the Floor of the House. At present, it is entirely within the aegis of the Chairman of a Committee to accept a manuscript amendment. There is no guarantee that those amendments will be debated on the Floor of the House. Most simply go through the Chamber virtually on the nod because there is no procedure to consider them carefully. We ought to be able to give them that consideration. The Select Committees, which already have the power to send for people and papers, should have increasing powers, not merely to use the information properly and produce a report but to take detailed information about specific legislation and to debate that here.
My experience of any Government has taught me that they do not necessarily welcome careful and detailed scrutiny of their proposed legislation. Hon. Members who are so keen on altering the procedure might find that their views are slightly different when they are on the other side of the Chamber If the present Government had had that kind of support system, they might not have got themselves
Column 50into the bizarre craziness of the poll tax fiasco and they might have had a rather better response to some of their other more disastrous bits of legislation.
For example, one may look at what the Select Committee on Transport did in relation to the Railways Bill. Much of the detailed and factual examination of the effects of privatisation should have made the Government pause, and not just because of the political implications. Many of the things that we warned about are now coming about and the Government will pay the price. In political terms, that does not cause me any great upset, but in reality it is a classic example of the folie de grandeur with which the Government went ahead, irrespective of the views of an all-party Committee that had taken detailed and important information.
Lots of hon. Members want to talk about the matter, and it was only because I felt that some of the issues were going by default that I wanted to contribute to the debate. I am happy to take part in debates in the Chamber in the morning, but it will mean that the work that I do now in my office will be done at some other time. People do not disappear because I do not answer their letters in the morning. Cases do not get simpler because I am elsewhere debating a subject. The real problems for Parliament are the lack of accurate information about what it does and the refusal of the media to regard us as anything except a series of amusing sketches. Someone looking back to has happened at the present time may regard it as being of some moment that the political pages of our major broadsheets considered the future and past of a couple of beautiful guide dogs--of whom I am very fond --to be of more importance than the debate which took place on the Floor of the House last week.
I am increasingly concerned that both the Leader of the House--who I believe is genuinely interested in the subject and anxious to do something about it--and the Shadow Leader may reach agreements that may be convenient for both Front Benches, but which undervalue the rights of Back Benchers. That is happening all the time. When I first came here, if an hon. Member wanted to propose a ten-minute Bill, it was up to him what time he got up, and he went and queued like anybody else. Now, he has to have the agreement of the Whips. That is a little erosion, and arrangements between the two Front Benches mean that there is a movement away from the rights of Back Benchers. When I first came here, there were a number of rights, which have since been quietly eroded by agreement between the two powerful Front Benches. That way lies perdition. People have been awkward in the name of democracy in British Parliaments since the 1600s. Those who give up their rights will be extremely sorry, whether they give them up under the banner of Maastricht or under the banner of a careful arrangement of parliamentary timetabling. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech and the freedom of Back Benchers to be damned awkward is what Parliament is all about.
Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes) : I spent 14 years on the Back Benches doing everything I could to exploit, use and--some would say-- sometimes misuse the so-called anachronistic procedures of the House. I spent the past 14 months in the House doing everything I could
Column 51to ensure that those procedures, without any truck from a Back Bencher, were overwhelmed by the majesty of the Front Bench. The speeches by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) effectively encapsulate the main debate about the reform of procedure, and they both made legitimate speeches and arguments. There is no doubt that there is a case for reform in the late 20th century. Many new hon. Members have come to the House during the past five or 10 years, and there are young hon. Members and many more lady hon. Members with families who rightly want to consider the case for the modern way of doing things with more "sensible" hours.
Equally, the hon. Lady's point about the need to be wary before we plunge down the road of reform is equally important. I have been both poacher and gamekeeper and I suppose that, for the next few years, I shall be a poacher with an understanding of gamekeeping. There will be occasions when hon. Members who do not form part of a majority in the Lobby may rue the day when they throw away some of the seemingly arcane procedures.
Anybody who ever wanted a lecture on that subject had only to consult the late Bob Cryer when he was alive. He was able to achieve many things for himself and his constituency through his use of so-called arcane and anachronistic procedures.
There was an occasion in the mid-1980s when my constituency was faced with the possibility of receiving nuclear waste. There were three other hon. Members who faced the same possibility--one was the Government's Chief Whip, one was the junior Home Office Minister and the other was the present Attorney-General. I was the only Back-Bench Member, and I concluded that it might just be possible that those who had the Front Bench privilege might somehow be able to persuade the Secretary of State for the Environment that perhaps their constituencies should not receive nuclear waste. I concluded that I perhaps might draw the short straw and, for a year or two, I used and misused the procedures of the House, and some accused me of abusing them. I make no apology for having done that.
Liberal Democrat Members who describe the procedures of the House, and the House of Commons in general, as being held in "public contempt" should perhaps have rephrased the first line in the motion. What they perhaps meant to say in the first line was that this House notes the increasing public contempt for politicians, and not Parliament. I do not believe that there is any more contempt for Parliament today than there was 10 or 20 years ago. I am prepared to concede that there is an increasing contempt for politicians, but that is a different issue.
That is why the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich was right to remind us of what may happen. In fairness, I think that there is a general majority in the House in favour of going down the road of parliamentary reform, and that is why the Liberal Democrat motion is not the appropriate motion to pass. If we are to go down that road, the document that my right hon. Friend the Member for
Column 52Westmorland and Lonsdale and his Select Committee produced some three years ago ought to be the reference point.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) may have done the House a service in allowing my right hon. Friend to reiterate the work that has already been done and, to that extent, today's debate may have been worth while. It has also provided an opportunity for the House to be reminded and warned by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich that individual Back Benchers do have--if they choose to study "Erskine May", precedent and the Standing Orders of the House--many protections. I have watched, from both the Back Benches and the Front Bench, hon. Members successfully defend the interests of their constituents through the use of many of the arcane procedures that the Liberal Democrats might wish to tip away. Mr. Spearing rose
Mr. Spearing : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the word arcane is sometimes used in complete ignorance ? For instance, the Question that I think Mr. Deputy Speaker will put at the end of this debate is that "the original words stand part of the Question". But without that reform, which was made in the early 1970s by the Procedure Committee of which I had the honour to be a member, no minority could vote on its own words. That is a first-rate example of what appears to be arcane, but is fundamentally democratic.
Mr. Brown : I agree absolutely. I am glad to note that it was a Conservative Government--my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale was involved in the process--who conceded to that perfectly legitimate request.
I accept that minorities have rights in the House and that minority parties take a great interest in what may happen whenever reforms are proposed by the two major parties. In the past 14 years, I have been a minority of one on more than one occasion--for example, when my constituency was the possible recipient of nuclear waste. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who took issue with the Liberal motion, which calls for an
"urgent and comprehensive reform of Parliament, including changes to the format of Prime Minister's Question Time."
We hon. Members have it in our power to reform Prime Minister's Question Time, regardless of anyone else.
I have always attempted, with the aid of the Table Office, to table questions to the Prime Minister on subjects that I want to raise. I will table a question tomorrow, and until my name eventually hits the Order Paper, to ask the Prime Minister when he intends to carry out the commitment he gave at the Conservative party conference in 1992 to abolish the county of Humberside. I will put that question down on the Order Paper, without any suggestion from the Table Office that it should be transferred to the Secretary of State for the Environment.
When the Prime Minister comes to the House on the day when I am lucky in the ballot for Prime Minister's questions, he will know what I want to ask and he will be able to give the answer. I will then have a second bite at the cherry. If any other hon. Members who are concerned