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Column 68We have every reason to criticise all Governments for bringing so much unprepared legislation before the House. For a time, I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Howe, as he is now.
Mr. Harris : Indeed. When he was Leader of the House, I was appalled at the way in which draftsmen had not prepared legislation because of the pressure that had been put on them, in a proper way. It was taken for granted that much of that legislation would be corrected in Committee, on the Floor of the House or in another place. That is not the right way to proceed. We want much less legislation and much better-quality legislation, and that is what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said. Those developments are essential.
The right time must be taken to consider reports such as that which has been produced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. As I have said, I think that its time has come, just as I think that the introduction of the televising of the House took place at precisely the right time. I was opposed to the televising of our proceedings when it was proposed earlier, but I took the view that, with changing circumstances, it was right to introduce it when it happened, not least for technical reasons. Despite what was said much earlier in the debate, it has been a great success. If we approach the Jopling report in the spirit of consensus, the changes outlined in it will similarly be a great success.
Finally, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I thought that he came in for some unfair criticism from the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett). I believe that my right hon. Friend has approached the issue in the correct way. I was pleased to hear the tribute paid to him by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). My right hon. Friend is proceeding carefully. He has to balance all the difficulties that lie with the need for reform against the sensible points made by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich. These are difficult matters, but I am confident that the House is now reaching consensus. I believe that the consensus will result not in the dramatic changes that some Members want but in a structure that will enable the House to perform its ancient function in modern times in a much better way than it has done in recent years.
Last autumn, I was incapacitated following a hip operation. Therefore, I had to watch Tuesday's, Wednesday's and Thursday's "Westminster Live". Never was there a greater misnomer among programmes. It was not Westminster live at all. It was punditry and Prime Minister's questions.
That leads me to the point that many of our constituents have the impression that Parliament is simply Prime Minister's questions and little else. Bluntly, sitting there, I was ashamed of how the House of Commons looked.
I can tell the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) that it was not a question of rapier-like debate. It was a bear garden. There were very few rapier-like debates. I believe that there is a solution to that. First, television has an obligation to broadcast
Column 69questions other than Prime Minister's questions and to give a good deal of time to them. Great credit often comes to the House of Commons from specific questions.
We should return to the very old days when my first Prime Minister, Mr. Harold Macmillan, would transfer any question which was not directly relevant to the office of Prime Minister. That had several advantages. It led to coherent questioning and the Prime Minister would know what subjects he had to address.
I should like to ask the Leader of the House a question. How much time, effort and energy does the Prime Minister of the day have to spend having the day's papers examined in an effort to identify what questions he is likely to be asked ?
Mr. Dalyell : The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) says all morning. I do not think that the Prime Minister of Great Britain should have to spend all morning searching around and wondering what he or she would be asked. I hope that an incoming Labour Prime Minister would not have to do that. That was one of the points that I raised with John Smith. The amount of civil service time taken up in that procedure is absolutely appalling.
There is an answer to that problem, and that is the use of the private notice question by the Opposition Front Bench. If that process were used, there could be coherent scrutiny which is simply not possible under a system which, whether or not we like it in this House, has become a disgrace to Parliament.
Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale) : I am grateful for the opportunity to sum up this important debate for my party. I have enjoyed listening to some excellent contributions from all parts of the House. However, I was saddened by the fact that some hon. Members preferred to close their eyes to the real issue. They are like people on the Titanic insisting that the ship is unsinkable as they slide across the dining room floor which is at an angle of 45 deg. They argue that our parliamentary democracy is in safe hands as long as it is in the hands of the Conservative Front Bench or the Opposition Front Bench. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) made a telling and important contribution. I heard no argument against his position from any hon. Member which persuaded me that his analysis was faulty. Whatever some Conservative or Opposition Members may feel, it is quite obvious to me that Parliament, and the House of Commons in particular, has seen its reputation collapse.
In my constituency and around the country, I am frequently asked what on earth Members of Parliament are playing at down here in Westminster. Very often that question is put as a joke because that is how our antics are viewed by a vast proportion of the public. However, the sad fact is that it is no laughing matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall made his points very well. The picture that he painted was worrying to any believer in the value of the democratic process. However, for those who still doubt that there is any need for change, the way in which the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill and other private Members' Bills have been treated is a perfect example of everything that has gone rotten at the heart of government. It provides
Column 70overwhelming evidence for the kind of reform of Parliament for which we have been calling for a good many years.
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) : The hon. Lady is right to particularise about issues of concern. The Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill has now been discussed here and in the House of Lords for 37 and a half hours. There has been no vote against its principles or purpose. It has been subjected to systematic obstruction.
Ms Lynne : I am grateful for that intervention. As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) said, the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill has been brought before this House 12 times in the past 20 years. Disabled people today are in almost the same position that they were in 20 years ago. They are still second-class citizens. They are still denied their basic civil rights and they are still unable to take their rightful place in society and make the contribution to that society that they are able to make. The reason is that the Government did not like the Bill. What a disgrace and what total abuse of power.
The Government have not liked previous Bills conferring civil rights on disabled people. However, civil rights for disabled people is a very popular idea. No one can understand why disabled people should not be given the same rights as women and ethnic minorities whose special rights are guaranteed in law. Those views, which are held in the country, are also held in this House where an overall majority of hon. Members, from all parties and from both sides of the House, support the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. However, the Government do not like the Bill.
We are in a position where the majority of people in the country and the majority of hon. Members want civil rights legislation for disabled people, but because the Government, for their own peculiar and dogmatic reasons, do not want that legislation on the statute book, there is nothing anyone can do about it. That is an abuse of the principle that Parliament is sovereign. It replaces that principle with a notion that it is the Government who should be able to dictate every aspect of our lives quite irrespective of the concerns of modern British society.
That situation shows up most glaringly the urgent need for the reform of the procedure by which the merits of private Members' Bills are tested in the House. After all, the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is not the only example of a private Member's Bill which has been wrecked by the Government, but, in my opinion, it is one of the worst. The same thing happened to the Medicines Information Bill, the Tobacco Advertising Bill and the Energy Conservation Bill, to name just a few.
The Medicines Information Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), sought to amend section 118 of the Medicines Act 1968 and give the public a right to know facts about the safety and effectiveness of medicines, the reasons for a licence having been granted and details of any side-effects reported after licensing. The Bill was supported by almost every medical body, by the National Consumer Council and by groups representing people who are the victims of the side-effects of drugs. However, the Bill had two opponents : certain sections of the pharmaceutical industry and the Government.
The Medicines Information Bill went through its first two stages without much of a hitch. However, the wrecking
Column 71amendments appeared all of a sudden in Committee. The fate of the Bill was therefore sealed. On Report, more than 40 extra amendments were tabled, and the Bill was talked out. So much for the commitment to open government that was made by the Prime Minister from his soapbox only a year previously. So much for parliamentary democracy.
The fate of the Tobacco Advertising Bill, which was sponsored by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), was the same. The purpose of that Bill was to ban tobacco advertising so that young people especially were not tempted to take up smoking. The idea behind it was to reduce the incidence of smoking-related illness which, apart from being a tragedy to sufferers and their families, is a huge financial burden on the health service. Once again, the Bill was supported by all medical bodies and had widespread support from the public at large and the majority of hon. Members. The Bill had two opponents : yet again the Government and the tobacco industry. In Committee, wrecking amendments were tabled and defeated, so on Report 108 amendments were tabled by Conservative Members and, yet again, the Bill was talked out. So much for the sovereignty of Parliament.
The Energy Conservation Bill, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), was another tragic case in point. I say "tragic" because its provisions would have led to help being given to those suffering most acutely the imposition of VAT on fuel. Again, that Bill had widespread support in the House, support from concerned organisations and support from people throughout the country, but, once again, the Bill was opposed by the Government. Many amendments, this time drafted by parliamentary counsel, on the instructions of the Secretary of State for the Environment, were tabled and the Bill was talked out. So much for the Government who listen.
So much for the Government who listen and who believe in the sovereignty of Parliament. The Government, with impunity, use their control over the allocation of time in the Chamber to stifle any legislation however popular, however necessary and however important if they and their friends in big business find their own reasons for doing so.
Recently, a more sinister development has come to our attention. During debate on the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, I and other Members requested the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People and Back- Bench Conservative Members to reveal the source of the amendments that they had tabled. The answers to those questions resulted in two Members, including the Minister, being forced on to the Floor of the House to apologise for misleading the House. That was an unprecedented occurrence within anyone's memory. They had been hiding the fact that many of the amendments that had been tabled had been drafted by civil servants in the form of parliamentary counsel, not only under instructions from
Column 72the Department, under the Secretary of State for Social Security, but with the collusion of the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Education.
Through a series of further written questions, I managed to force an admission from four Ministers that they had authorised parliamentary counsel to draft amendments to private Members' Bills that were opposed by the Government. Those amendments were then passed to Conservative Back- Bench Members so that they would do the Government's dirty work. It is obvious that that practice has become endemic. It is obvious also that the civil service is no longer independent.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall rightly said, comprehensive reform of Parliament is needed so that those abuses do not occur again. But, as a first step, the Government could show their willingness to tackle the crisis of confidence by changing the procedure by which private Members' Bills are considered. Private Members' Bills should be eligible for timetabling in the same way as Government business, a whole day should be devoted to Third Reading, and a vote should then be taken. Perhaps also the ten-minute rule could be applied to debate on private Members' Bills to prevent filibuster. That matter has been considered by the Procedure Committee. One of its suggestions which seems to have merit is that, at 2.30 pm on Fridays, private Members should be able to move that extra time be provided on a later Government day after 10 pm. That would go some way to redressing the balance between Government business and private Members' Bills, although not as far as I should like it.
At the moment, the Government of the day can crush without difficulty any legislation that they do not explicitly approve. The elderly people of this country who have lost the opportunity for savings against VAT on fuel deserve the ending of that systematic abuse. The children who, in the next few years, will be attracted to smoking, and the bereaved families of smokers who died from their addiction deserve changes to be made urgently to the Government's power over the business of the House.
The victims of the side-effects of drugs who were unable to judge for themselves whether to balance the benefits of drugs against their side- effects deserve the restoration of the sovereignty of Parliament so that it becomes more than just a slogan. The disabled people of Britain who have to face yet another day of systematic and institutionalised discrimination deserve the Government doing more than just paying lip service to our democratic institutions. Hundreds of hon. Members are trying to represent their constituencies fairly and honourably, but they are being thwarted by the Government's obsession with their own dogmatic concerns and sectional interests. I ask that the House supports the motion which could lead us into a new era of enfranchisement, involvement and enablement--the true constituents of a real democracy. We cannot afford to wait any longer.
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Mr. Newton : With the leave of the House, I shall offer just a few comments on the debate, although obviously in a few minutes--I accept that I sought only a few minutes--I cannot comment on all the points that have been made, by any manner of means.
I understand why the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) said what she did and, perhaps, why she did not wish to give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). One of the interesting aspects of this matter is that my right hon. Friend's Committee--I think that my right hon. Friend will confirm it--has received almost no representations whether from the Liberal Democrats or from elsewhere about the handling of private Members' Bills, but no doubt he will have heard with interest some of the points that have been made.
The only point that I make in response to the hon. Lady is that she might at least have acknowledged that the Government have made clear their reasons for concern about the practical consequences of the proposals in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill and their concern to make positive progress, to the extent that the Government themselves will consult on a number of key matters in relation to discrimination against disabled people --for example, discrimination in employment, in access to goods and services, and in the provision of financial services. They will consult also on extending access provisions and creating a new independent body to advise the Government and to report on progress towards eliminating discrimination. That is an important and positive attempt to seek genuinely workable and practicable ways forward, and the hon. Lady might at least have acknowledged that in pursuing the controversy. Many other points have been made. I was grateful to my right hon. Friend for acknowledging that he feels, as I do and as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) does, that it is important to make progress in this matter on the basis of consensus to the maximum possible extent. That has certainly been my approach. We heard with great and genuine interest the cautionary notes struck by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) and others about how, sometimes, procedures that are regarded as arcane and complex are nevertheless an important part of hon. Members' armoury in pursuing their interests as Members. I say only--I see that the Liberal Chief Whip is looking anxiously at his watch lest I should talk the motion out, but that is not my intention--that some remarks made by the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) and some of my hon. Friends were less than gracious. Perhaps he gave the game away when he said that the problem was not the powers that the Government have given Select Committees or the efforts that I have made, but, and I think that I noted his comments right, that all that these Committees lack is the ambition of hon. Members to use those powers. That may or may not be the case, but it is a criticism not of the Government but of hon. Members.
Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question :
The House divided : Ayes 44, Noes 187.
Column 74Division No. 266] [6.59 pm
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Foster, Don (Bath)
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Johnston, Sir Russell
Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Lynne, Ms Liz
Maddock, Mrs Diana
Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)
Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Tellers for the Ayes :
Mr. Archy Kirkwood and
Mr. Nigel Jones.
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Beresford, Sir Paul
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Bowden, Sir Andrew
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Fenner, Dame Peggy
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger
Gardiner, Sir George
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan
Golding, Mrs Llin
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)
Grylls, Sir Michael
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Hannam, Sir John
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence L.
Hill, James (Southampton Test)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)