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Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I wonder whether, even at this stage, the Leader of the House would consider making that proposal voluntary. It would reduce substantially the rights of Back Benchers, especially those who are squeezed in a Second Reading debate. The safety valve is that one can always threaten to speak on the money resolution. My experience is that if we do that, it is surprising how the Whips manage to negotiate just a little bit of time to allow us Members to get in on the main debate. Why cannot the proposal be a voluntary restraint rather than an enforced one?
Mr. Newton: I can say only that, as far as is possible, we have sought to adopt the specific proposals of the Select Committee, which were endorsed in all parts of the House. That proposal was one of them and I think that it is reasonable to include it in the package. The third motion provides in paragraph (1) that all affirmative statutory instruments will be automatically referred to a Standing Committee unless the Government table a motion to de-refer them. I assure the hon. Member for Dewsbury and her colleagues that the Government will accede to any reasonable request from the Opposition that an affirmative instrument be debated on the Floor. Paragraph (2) preserves the existing treatment of Church of England Measures. It also contains consequential provisions.
Column 1464Paragraph (3) provides for a limit of one and a half hours on statutory instruments or European Community documents debated on the Floor, even if the debate begins before 10 o'clock. The special arrangements for deregulation orders, which the House approved on 24 November, are not affected by this change. As at present, debates on prayers that begin at or after 10 o'clock will finish at 11.30 pm.
Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare): Does my right hon. Friend recognise that while I warmly welcome the proposal, there is a strong feeling that not enough orders are debated? As they are to be sent automatically to Standing Committee, will he give some thought to the possibility that we can have better debates on more orders when there are sufficient names on the Order Paper?
The two proposals taken together, that is, the normal referral of statutory instruments to Standing Committee and the fact that they can be debated for an hour and a half on the Floor at whatever time of day the debate starts-- whereas at present if the debate starts at 4.30 pm, it can continue until 11.30 pm--will probably do more than any other to make a 10 o'clock finish to business the norm rather than the exception.
From time to time, it may be necessary to vary those arrangements by means of a business motion, for example, to allow a longer debate for a particularly important instrument, to provide for a joint debate on a group of related instruments, or to apply a time limit to a motion that was not covered by this provision. However, I say to the hon. Member for Jarrow that our aim will be to ensure that any such motion is agreed through the usual channels before being tabled, as we would always seek to do.
The fourth motion gives effect to the Jopling recommendation that time normally used by private Members--except private Members' Bills--should be transferred to Wednesday morning sittings. Paragraphs (1) and (2) provide for the designation of a number of Fridays on which the House will not sit. On those Fridays, the Table Office and the Public Bill Office--this may help some hon. Members--will be open and Members will be able to table questions and amendments. In a full Session--should the House decide to make the experiment
permanent--there would be 10 such Fridays, as the report recommended, but as the period of the experiment is somewhat shorter than a full Session, the motion proposes that for the remainder of the present Session there should be eight.
For the benefit of those outside the House, those inside would like me to emphasise that those are in no sense Fridays off; they are days kept clear of specific duties here at Westminster to enable hon. Members to discharge equally important duties in their constituencies and elsewhere.
Paragraph (3) and the succeeding paragraphs provide for the House to meet at 10 o'clock on Wednesdays for a series of balloted Adjournment debates. Arrangements for those debates will be made informally under the kindly authority of you, Madam Speaker--at least, I hope that it will be kindly. It is envisaged that there should be one or two general debates in the three hours between 10 o'clock and 1 o'clock and three
Column 1465half-hour debates between 1 o'clock and 2.30 pm, when questions would begin. Those provisions will come into force early in the next parliamentary term, on the third Wednesday on which the House sits, that is, 25 January. That will allow enough time for the new arrangements to be put into operation.
Mr. Spearing: I want to clear up an anomaly that may not have occurred to hon. Members. Paragraph (10) transfers motions on the Adjournment--and we had a very useful three hours of that this evening--to a Wednesday. What is wrong with transferring the motion for the Adjournment for the appropriate recess to the Wednesday before the Adjournment, to keep together grievances before Adjournment and debate and decision, and the principle that a motion that is amendable should also be debatable? Otherwise, the separation of voice and vote is surely against parliamentary principle.
Mr. Newton: The hon. Gentleman is making a point which may be raised by his hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and which is also, in a sense, related to an amendment, which was not selected, that was tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton. It might be sensible for me to reserve further comment until the hon. Member for Walsall, North and my right hon. Friend have had an opportunity to make their points.
Paragraph (8) does away with the obsolete Standing Order that enables a late sitting to be suspended until 10 o'clock the following morning, which is clearly incompatible with regular morning sittings. Incidentally, I was barely aware of that provision myself until recently, and to my recollection it has never been used.
Paragraphs (9) to (11) dispense with the existing time available to private Members--for private Members' motions, Adjournment debates following the Consolidated Fund Bill and debates on motions fixing the dates of recesses- -which is being transferred to Wednesday mornings. As a transitional measure, the "end of term" Adjournment debates that I announced in Thursday's business statement, which are not governed by any of the Standing Orders, will go ahead as planned.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): Will my right hon. Friend take up a request from many of us, relating to the giving of notice to the Table Office? Would it be possible for the Table Office, and other such departments, to accept questions by fax? Can we allow modern technology to be introduced into our offices?
Mr. Newton: The debate seems to be being used as a sort of Christmas tree--appropriately enough--on which to hang a variety of interesting suggestions. A possible use of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 would be to allow the Patent Office to take in material by electronic means rather than on pieces of paper; perhaps the House authorities will also consider my hon. Friend's suggestion. I would be rash to give her a snap yes, but I shall certainly ensure that what she has said is given careful consideration.
Column 1466The final motion gives you, Madam Speaker, wider discretion to apply the 10-minute limit to speeches. It will be possible to apply the limit to any kind of public business and to all or any part of a debate, rather than just to two hours in the middle as at present. Inevitably--not least because of the interventions problem that has been demonstrated in the past few minutes--there will be exemptions for Front Benchers and for a minority party spokesman, but Front Benchers will strive to keep their opening speeches to a maximum of 30 minutes and their closing speeches to 20 minutes. I stress that that is more than just a formula. In practice, by agreement, most winding-up speeches have recently been limited to 20 minutes; we shall try to make that arrangement more formal.
I emphasise that the five motions--together with the other points agreed between Government and Opposition, which I described earlier--are designed, like the Select Committee's report on which they are based, as a balanced package to protect the legitimate interests of Government, Opposition, minority parties and Back Benchers. As with all proposals of that kind, their success will depend to a significant extent on the good will of all involved. I do not mean just Front Benchers, but I do refer to them
particularly--again, I am looking hard in a certain direction. Provided we have that good will, we shall have taken a significant step forward in assisting the more sensible management of our affairs. I commend the proposals to the House.
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury): I welcome the debate, and the general thrust of the package proposed by the Leader of the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) was right in saying that it did not bear his fingerprints; I know that he, and a few other hon. Members on both sides of the House, are very concerned about the possibility of any change in our procedures. In my view, however, the changes that we are discussing do not constitute a dramatic revolution. I believe that they are no more than a useful step forward, making Parliament more efficient and, we hope, more effective.
Let me echo the tribute paid by the Leader of the House to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), both of whom played a considerable part in agreeing the package through the usual channels. As the Leader of the House said, it is both a package and an experiment from which the whole House should expect to learn in the forthcoming year.
The Leader of the House has agreed that the procedures in the package will be reviewed in October. I think that we shall need some flexibility during the year to allow modification of practice; indeed, I suspect that over that time conventions of which we are not yet aware will develop, as that is how our procedures have always come about.
I do not believe that these proposals are the last word in terms of making the Government more accountable, scrutinising the Executive or any of our other functions. We all know that the press tends to see the workings of the House as the Government trying to put their business through and the Opposition trying to frustrate that objective; no doubt many people consider that the be-all and end-all of Parliament.
One of our responsibilities today is to ensure that any proposed procedural changes do not damage the opportunities that are available not only to the Opposition officially, but to all Back Benchers, to scrutinise what the Executive does. There are legitimate concerns that we shall have to consider in the coming year. I know some of my hon. Friends believe that the interests of Front Benchers and those of Back Benchers are not always the same. We must be conscious of the need to ensure that Back Benchers' rights are a reality, and not to undermine their long-term position-- although I would argue that it is still extremely difficult for Back Benchers to scrutinise in the way that we would like.
Mr. Spearing: I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said, and the spirit in which she has said it. Does she agree, however, that there is no need to balance the opportunities of Back Benchers to debate amendable motions--or, indeed, to contribute in any way--with the sitting hours of the House? Surely the two are not connected. The House can sit when it decides to do so; surely the procedures for private Members are separate.
Mrs. Taylor: My point is that if we are changing our procedures and our sitting hours we should be careful not to take any action that would detract from Back Benchers' rights. I do not think that the package damages those rights.
We must remember that change in one area will always have a knock-on effect in another. That is why it is important for us to conduct an experiment rather than changing the Standing Orders themselves. The Jopling report may be a starting point, but I do not accept every dot and comma in it, and I know few hon. Members who do; nor do I think that we should pursue the question of our working hours simply to try to enable Members of Parliament to work fewer hours. I do not believe that that is the objective of the report, or of today's proposals.
Mrs. Dunwoody: I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will make it clear that some of us sit in Committee on Wednesday mornings. The idea that moving work from Friday to Wednesday will somehow improve the position may turn out not to be the case. Many of us are minded to vote against the amendments simply because we are old fashioned enough not to believe that we came here to improve the Government's legislation, which we believe in most instances to be beyond redemption.
Mrs. Taylor: The legislation that my hon. Friend and I would agree is beyond redemption is the sort of legislation that we shall repeal and replace after the next election. In the meantime, however, we have a duty and responsibility to protect our constituents' interests as much as possible by minimising the damage done by legislation with which we disagree. Select Committees sit on Wednesday mornings, but there are always different calls on the time of Members of Parliament. Standing Committees frequently sit on a Tuesday and Thursday afternoon while the House sits.
Column 1468Select Committees sit almost every afternoon while the House is sitting. All hon. Members have problems in terms of balancing their time.
Mrs. Taylor: Many hon. Members need to use Fridays, as far as possible, for constituency work. That is not always the case for London- based Members, who can get to their constituencies during the week, but it is extremely important for northern or non-London-based Members to use Fridays as a constituency day.
I shall deal briefly with the specific proposals because, as the Leader of the House said, I do not think that Front-Bench Members should hog the debate. The remit of the Jopling Committee was not to revolutionise the workings of the House of Commons. Its remit was narrow.
On changes to the time provided for private Members' legislation, I emphasise to my right hon. and hon. Friends the points that were made earlier. The total time available for private Member's Bills will be no less than it is now. Hon. Members who took part in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill, which yet again went through the night, must acknowledge that they would not lose anything if that sort of debate took place on a Wednesday morning. It is important for non-London Members, in particular, to be able to use Fridays with some certainty and to be able to plan ahead, which is not always possible now.
My hon. Friends are somewhat too concerned about the loss of end of term Adjournment debates such as the one that we had earlier. It is important that the House should have safety valves and that hon. Members have the opportunity to raise subjects and urgent issues that they have not be able to raise in other ways. The suggestion in the amendment tabled by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure, the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), is important. I put that suggestion to the Leader of the House following discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). There is no reason why the last Wednesday of any term could not be used for the same sort of debate as we had earlier.
Mr. Bennett: Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the important things is that such debates are a right? Under present procedure, any Back Bencher who wants to raise an issue has almost a guarantee that, on an Adjournment motion, he can get up and make a fuss. If one takes that right away from Back Benchers, they will have to consider actions outside Standing Orders, such as standing by the Mace and generally disrupting the place. That is not in anyone's interests. We should therefore keep the safety valves.
Mrs. Taylor: I agree that having safety valves is far preferable to people standing by the Mace or using other procedures. That is why it is worth considering the possibility--I do not see why this should not happen- -of using the last Wednesday in the way that I explained. We could do so this year as an experiment. If it worked, we could consider ways of writing it into Sessional Orders or even Standing Orders. I hope that that is one issue from which we shall learn something and on which we shall make progress this year.
Column 1469not want to take that away from her--does she not realise that, if we abolish the sort of debate that we had before the present debate, it will take away an important right and, moreover, the ability to vote against the motion, as hon. Members have done on many occasions?
If my hon. Friend did not hear the courageous speech made an hour or so ago by the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Carttiss), I am sure that she will read it. Such a speech may be out of order if the amendment, which has not been selected, is accepted. The Chair would have to consider what was and was not relevant. It would be an unfortunate step if we took away the basic right to debate matters before we agreed to go into recess and the right to vote on the matter. I hope that my hon. Friend, for whom I have a great regard, will think seriously about that.
Mrs. Taylor: I have said that I am concerned that safety valves should not be lost and that we should learn during this year whether having the final Wednesday for that sort of debate would be practical. We might be able to make progress on that through discussion. That is one of the reasons why it is important that the proposals are experimental. We can learn what works, where hon. Members feel frustration about things that have changed, and where we need modification of the proposals. I emphasise to my hon. Friend that we are changing not the Standing Orders but the sessional orders of the House. On that basis, I hope that he will consider that the changes are not so dramatic as some people may have suggested. I know that some of my hon. Friends are worried about the changes to statutory instruments, but the assurances given again today by the Leader of the House are extremely helpful. The rights of Back Benchers are again an issue of genuine concern. It is one thing for Back Benchers to influence what their political party says through the usual channels in terms of asking for a debate on the Floor of the House, but it would be a loss to exclude all mechanisms for Back Benchers to force a debate on a statutory instrument on to the Floor of the House.
I have had discussions, but we have not yet developed a mechanism that would be an adequate trigger. I know that previous discussions were held on the matter. We shall have to monitor the issue during the experimental period. We do not want to build discontent among Back Benchers by excluding statutory instruments about which they are concerned but which Front-Bench Members do not think are so important.
We should use the rest of this parliamentary Session to experiment in more positive ways of scrutinising statutory instruments in Committee. I have been impressed by the changes that have taken place in some Committees. In the European Scrutiny Committee, for example, Ministers can be questioned before a short debate. I know that that position is not ideal. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) raised a valid point last Wednesday, I believe, about the coincidence of a debate in Committee and a debate on the Floor of the House. Problems of that sort must be avoided. The Standing Orders of the House must be considered again to deal with that sort of problem, which should not have arisen as it did last week. We should be looking to give hon. Members better opportunities for better quality scrutiny of statutory instruments in Committee.
Column 1470On Ways and Means resolutions and money resolutions, I have no concerns in relation to the proposals to take money resolutions on the nod immediately after Second Reading, so long as any separate money resolution can be debated in the normal way. That is important. However, the suggestions relating to Ways and Means resolutions will be rather more in need of monitoring during the year.
I do not see how anyone could object to a voluntary timetable for Standing Committees. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow, the Deputy Chief Whip, said that such a system has operated for the past couple of years, and often successfully. If there is a breakdown, it is often because positions are entrenched. That problem could still arise. I have serious reservations about any move towards automatic guillotines. Although some hon. Members want us to move in that direction, I do not regard this agreement as a precursor for such a move.
As for the other matters under discussion, such as Law Commission Bills and consolidation Bills, I do not know of anyone who objects to the proposals, so I hope that they will not be contentious. I regard the increased discretion that it is suggested should be available to you, Madam Speaker, as definitely a move in the right direction, especially if it means that limitations will be placed on the time that Front-Bench spokesmen are allowed.
The amendments examining mechanisms by which injury time could be given to any hon. Member who accepts and responds to interventions are especially important. If, in a full day's debate, hon. Members spoke for 10 minutes in set-piece mode and refused interventions which would reduce their speaking time, it would reduce the spontaneity of our debates and create a wholly different atmosphere, which would not be conducive to good scrutiny of legislation or good debate. Whether or not the amendments are discussed specifically this evening, I hope that it will be possible for the issue of injury time to be considered, because it would benefit the House.
Mr. Bennett: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is especially important that Ministers give way because the more their allotted time is reduced, the greater the temptation for them to refuse to do so? As we know, it is when Ministers give way that we often obtain important information.
Mrs. Taylor: I agree, and I believe that limiting Ministers to 30 minutes is at least better than the original suggestion of 20 minutes, which would certainly have been an excuse for them to refuse to give way. We should still expect Ministers to give way, and such important conventions are worth protecting.
The Leader of the House and I have had several discussions about the announcement of future business. Clearly, if the changes are accepted, some of the House's business will become more obvious in advance. We shall know, for example, when Bills will leave Committee and it will be helpful to us all if we know when economic, defence or set-piece debates are to take place. However, I believe that the Leader of the House should be in a
Column 1471position to announce not only the business for the following week but the provisional business for at least the week after that. The House should accept that it was provisional and might be subject to change, occasionally at the request of the Opposition. The House would then accept that any change was made for good reason. That would be extremely helpful to everyone involved.
I said that the proposed changes are not dramatic or revolutionary, but that they can help the House to work more efficiently. As hon. Members have said, we need to examine our procedures and make changes to, for example, procedures relating to statements, the possibility of having written parliamentary questions during the recess and freedom of access to information, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth). They are all very important issues and although the proposed changes are not the last word on any of our proceedings they are constructive and can help the House to work more efficiently and effectively.
Several hon. Members rose --
Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale): The House will recall that I had the honour of being the Chairman of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House. It has been said that the Committee's report was the father of these proposals; in that case, the grandfather was my right hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor) who is sitting next to me and who was the Leader of the House on whose initiative the Committee was set up. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) on her fine speech. It is two and a half years since the Select Committee reported. We had a debate before the previous election and there was broad support for the report's recommendations. We had another after the election and there was even greater support, backed by an early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) and signed by 215 other hon. Members. The House now sighs with relief that some proposals are at last being discussed; members of the two Front-Bench teams have got down to some serious business and reached an agreement.
It is lamentable that it has taken the House so long to decide how to manage its own affairs. That might have something to do with the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon), who made an extraordinary statement at the beginning of the debate. He said that there were usual channels within usual channels. I used to be part of that system and I must say that I had no experience at all of what he was talking about. It would be very dangerous for the House were there to be usual channels within the usual channels--the House could not work like that. However, in the Christmas spirit, let us welcome the proposals introduced by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.
I believe that the proposals that we are debating today and the announcement made by the Leader of the House last week in a written answer amount to about 85 per cent.
Column 1472acceptance of the Select Committee's proposals. Those changes, coupled with certain procedures, can be said to be the most wide-ranging reform of the sittings of the House in the second half of the 20th century. They are as important as that and will greatly affect the way in which the House brings itself up to date. In a way, the two-and-a-half year delay has meant that the proposals now receive even broader support in the House than they did when they were produced. The process reminds me of my annual practice of making sloe gin at home--it takes six months to make the stuff but the longer one leaves it, the better it tastes. However, that is incidental.
I shall not weary the House by relating the contents of the Select Committee's report that the Government have not taken up and that have not been embraced by the usual channels, but I must mention what is undoubtedly the most important omission in the proposals, which is the Select Committee's recommendation that a timetable be placed on all Government Bills. I know that this has always been the background to the major causes of non-agreement between members of the two Front-Bench teams.
The better management of Bills has been recommended by the Procedure Committee for a good many years, but nothing much has happened. Of course, we all know in our hearts that there are times when hon. Members of all parties use the procedures, for reasons that I well understand, to indulge in time wasting. It is a long-standing and well-known technique which all Oppositions, and some Governments, have used. I have been party to it myself, in government and in opposition, so I am familiar with it. Anything we can do to eliminate unnecessary time wasting is in the interests of the business of the House.
Sir Jerry Wiggin: My right hon. Friend has had long experience here and has admitted taking part in such practices on both sides of the House. Can he recall more than one or two occasions on which, at the end of the day, the legislation was in any way altered?
Mr. Jopling: Rarely indeed. That was a point that the Select Committee, in its unanimous proposals, had very much in mind. Very rarely do such techniques amount to very much-- [Hon. Members:-- "No."] Of course I can think of changes that have happened as a result of such techniques, but they have happened rarely and in our hearts we all know that.
Since the Select Committee started its deliberations three years ago, we have had many more timetable motions. When I was a business manager here in the early 1980s, I was absolutely determined that the Government should never exceed in a year the number of guillotines that Michael Foot produced in that famous one night--as I recall, he introduced five. Nowadays, that is all history.
The House has changed its mood and it has gone very much in the direction of accepting timetable motions. When I arrived here 30 years ago, there was tumult in the House whenever the Leader of the House proposed a guillotine motion. That is all in the past. The hon. Member for Dewsbury made a point with which I strongly agree. The Government have within their gift the right to apply a guillotine whenever they want. It is crucial, however, that they do not abuse that right. I say that to Ministers and to Opposition Front-Bench Members, and it applies to any party in government.
Column 1473I shall now deal with the motions. I fully agree with motion No. 2 on consolidation Bills. Motion No. 3 concerns money resolutions and Ways and Means resolutions. There was a unanimous view in the Select Committee that endless debates on Ways and Means resolutions until a closure motion was moved and three-quarters-of-an-hour debates on money resolutions, although sometimes important, were nearly always unnecessary and often time-wasting.
The reform on statutory instruments is overdue. It is right that statutory instruments should go into Committee automatically, with agreement between the usual channels, and that they should be taken on the Floor, whether under the negative or affirmative procedure, if the Opposition especially want that. That must be right. However, I do not want my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, once the motion has been accepted, to propose that statutory instruments should be taken after a Second Reading debate, thus starting at 10 pm. That would be totally against the spirit of what he has said and of what the Select Committee has said.
Mr. Newton indicated assent .
Mr. Jopling: I see my right hon. Friend nodding his head. I hope that I can take it from that that the Government will not normally propose that statutory instruments should be taken after business has finished at 10 pm.
Motion No. 5, on the sittings of the House, closely follows the recommendations of the Select Committee on Friday and Wednesday sittings. I warmly support the proposal. I also support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), which has not been selected. He proposes that there should be no ministerial statements on Wednesday mornings. Such timing would be totally against the spirit of the Select Committee's proposal and I hope that the Leader of the House will tell us that that will not happen. Such statements should remain at 3.30 pm.
I do not agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, North--I have had the pleasure of talking to him about this--about the three-hour recess Adjournment debate. The Select Committee made a close study of private Members' business. We added up the number of hours taken on private Members' motions, on the Consolidated Fund Bill, which goes through the night, on three-hour Adjournment debates, such as the one that we have just finished, and on the debates on the final day before the recess, such as that which we shall have tomorrow. We took the average number of hours for such private Members' business and we discovered that it was almost identical to having a
four-and-a-half-hour sitting on Wednesday mornings between 10 am and 2.30 pm. We proposed, therefore, taking all that private Members' business out and putting it on Wednesday mornings. The hon. Gentleman's proposal that we should still have the three-hour Adjournment debate would upset the arithmetic, and I would be opposed to that.
I am very much more attracted by the proposal by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) that, on the Wednesday before a recess, we should have a similar debate. One could perfectly well structure it so that we could have, as the first motion, the motion for the Adjournment of the House for whatever recess it is. That would allow us for three hours in the mornings, between 10
Column 1474am and 1 pm, as my right hon. Friend has suggested, to have the sort of debate--which I believe is very valuable and I bow to nobody in that--that we have just finished.
Mr. Spearing: My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) will, I think, reply to the point about the Adjournment. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that what he has done, irrespective of the arithmetic, which fits, is to substitute a debate on the Adjournment on Wednesday for debates on specific motions? Irrespective of the fact that motions can be voted on and are amendable, that reduces the opportunities for private Members.
Mr. Jopling: The hon. Gentleman has got it a bit wrong. The proposal by the hon. Member for Walsall, North would provide 12 hours more of private Members' time than we have now; that goes against the feeling that we want a balance between Back Bench and Front Bench. His proposal would upset that. I hope very much that the House does not agree with the hon. Gentleman's amendment. I hope that when we come back to the matter in a year's time, an amendment similar to that tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton will be tabled and that we can vote on it. I shall certainly support it. The hon. Member for Dewsbury raised the matter of safety valves. I was educated a great deal in my life by my great friend Lord Cocks, who was the Labour Chief Whip when I was Government Chief Whip. He used to say to me how vital it was to maintain in the House the right for people to let off steam--safety valves. That is why the Select Committee did not want to change what is, in my view, the somewhat absurd practice of allowing hon. Members to introduce ten-minute Bills in July when they know that they have no chance of getting them through. It is an important safety valve and therefore it is a good thing.
That is also why the Select Committee was not in favour of changing motions under Standing Order No. 20, to which the House is accustomed at 3.30 pm. Those safety valves are crucial and I am very much in favour of preserving such opportunities. I strongly approve, therefore, of the theory of having debates such as the three-hour debate we have just had, although they should be held on Wednesday mornings. I think that we can accommodate that at some time. I agree with motion No. 6 on short speeches. However, I hope that the Speaker will make those views known to long-winded Ministers when they go on and on just because some minor official in their Department has said to them, "But Minister, it is very important to get these things on the record." It is a pain in the neck for the House when Ministers do that. We all know that, being Ministers, they will do that.
It is important that Ministers do not come to the House with 40-minute speeches and then plough through them. I hope that--if I may say this because my amendment has not been selected--in future, when Ministers open debates with speeches of more than 30 minutes, they will be continually interrupted, if not by the Chair, by Back-Benchers reminding them of the answer given on Thursday by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, that Ministers should confine themselves to 30 minutes. We ought to hassle Ministers who go on in that way.
Of course, it would be wrong--let me say this quite clearly--as I am sure that the hon. Member for Jarrow would understand, to tie Ministers absolutely firmly to a 20-minute winding-up speech, because that is obviously a procedural man-trap. If the Opposition spokesman sat down early and left 35 minutes before 10 o'clock, when the
Column 1475division was timed to take place, and the Government spokesman could speak for only 20 minutes, problems would arise. We cannot get trapped into that sort of country.
I shall sum up by reminding the House--
I remind the House that we meet on more days and for more hours than any other Parliament in any large democracy in the world. The public, frankly, cannot understand why we have to sit often half the night and sometimes all the night. The proposals will go some way--the hon. Member for Dewsbury was right--to streamlining our procedures. Above all, unlike the ill-fated Crossman proposals of the 1960s, which I remember very well, I believe that the proposals will be broadly acceptable to the House, and I hope very much that they will stand the test of time and practice.
I would be happier in my own mind if tonight there were to be a genuine free vote. There is indeed a free vote for Labour Members, but, as I understand it, that is not so for Government Members. A payroll vote has been mobilised, there is apparently a two-line Whip. While I hope that a number of Conservative Members on the Back Benches will indeed exercise a free vote, it is unfortunate that we are faced once again with a payroll vote. It is not a very good preface to the supposed new regime.
I recognise the wish on the part of a number of hon. Members, Labour Members included, for changes in the time that we sit. I certainly do not look on colleagues who want such a change as if they were lazy and wanting a nice, quiet life. Indeed, if anything, on the whole, Members of Parliament are more likely to be workaholics than lazy types. The very thing that brings people into politics, in local authorities and professional politics, is a desire to be active. Indeed, many hon. Members not only do an active job here, but carry a pretty hefty constituency case load. At times--perhaps, this is just my view--it would probably do us all good if we left more time for reading and reflecting. That is not an argument for sitting less time, let me quickly tell the Leader of the House. But it would do no harm sometimes for us to reflect on various matters, as that would help us in our daily work.
We are not alone in having somewhat odd hours. Sometimes, some hon. Members give the impression that only we lead a difficult life; the hours are so odd and strenuous and so on. Many of us, of course, were members of a local authority and we should not forget that many people on both sides of the political divide carry out local authority work and related work on four evenings a week, after their ordinary work. We are not the only people in politics who have somewhat difficult hours.
Column 1476Of course, if one leaves aside politics, imagine the number of people in the country who work anti-social hours and who have no alternative.