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Mr. Winnick: My hon. Friend talks of people who work in the pits. Imagine the number of people who do boring and monotonous, as well as very poorly paid work. Indeed, the way in which deregulation has worked in the past few years has meant that far more anti-social hours are worked. People do not have the--how shall I describe it--pleasing political environment of the House of Commons in which to work. So, for heaven's sake, let us keep things in perspective. We work difficult hours and it causes a strain on family life, but, in the main, as I have said, hon. Members are not the only ones who are in this position. Do not let us make martyrs of ourselves.
Mr. Cormack: It is probably a good idea to put on the record that an awful lot of hon. Members are in their offices as early as 8 o'clock in the morning, as well as being here as late as 10 o'clock or 11 o'clock at night. The hon. Gentleman is one of them, I know, and so am I.
Mr. Winnick: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There is a danger, when we talk about constituency Fridays, that we give the impression that those are the only Fridays which we devote to constituent's duties. I am one of those hon. Members, and I am sure that there are many more, who for various reasons, apart from any Friday constituency work, carry out regular surgeries on Saturday mornings. I do so because it is part of the political culture in my area. If I started to hold them at a different time, be it on Monday evenings, which would be most inappropriate to say the least, or on Friday evenings, the people who may wish to see me may have various difficulties in making a Friday evening, if only because of some of the anti-social hours of which I have been speaking.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood): I was glad that my hon. Friend finally mentioned the question of strains on family life. It is rather odd that we spend much of our time in this place talking about the importance of family life and the need to reconcile it with other activities, when the way in which we work here is ruinous to family life. The reforms proposed do not improve the matter one jot, at least not for those Members who live outside London and who already carry heavy constituency loads on Fridays.
Mr. Winnick: I appreciate the strain on family life, as I have said, but my hon. Friend must understand that there are sacrifices--if that is the appropriate word--in all that we do. Service people, be they officers, non-commissioned people or in the ranks, lead the sort of life which is a strain on family life. They can be away from their families too, for example, when serving in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
What about the many people who work in the various emergency services who, by the very nature of their jobs, are away from their family lives? All I am saying is that, while I recognise the point made by hon. Friend, we are not
Column 1477alone. There are all kind of strains, which can be even greater when the work involves very poor pay. However, I do not dispute my hon. Friend's basic point.
Mrs. Dunwoody: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. May I point out, having been here for nearly 30 years, and after long experience of politicians of all parties, that it sometimes seems that their marriages hold together much better when their spouses see as little of them as possible?
Ms Walley: Does my hon. Friend agree that the last thing on earth that this place wants is elected members who have no families, who have no contact with their constituencies and have no idea what is going on in the world outside? That is why we have to do something to change the way in which we conduct our business.
Mr. Winnick: I do not know whether this is all injury time, but I say to my hon. Friend simply that perhaps--I have the greatest respect for her, as she knows--there are differences. From the Government's point of view, they would be quite happy if we sat less and if we did far more in our constituencies. Of course they would be happy. Perhaps, if we, as Labour Members, were the Government, we would be happy in the same way if the Tory Opposition Members of Parliament sat less.
This is our place of work. If we decide to be elected, it is in this place above all where we have to carry out our main work. If we work on the assumption that the strain is too much--I am not in any way being critical of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) as family life is far more important--one would inevitably question whether this is the right place of work for them. Surely there is no way in which professional politics can be conducted other than that. I ask again, what about councillors? Is there no strain on their family life?
It is important to understand that, in this place, time is a weapon, and an important one. It is obviously especially important for the Opposition of the day and for individual Back-Bench Members, including Government Back Benchers. That is why I have reservations about some of the proposals. It is suggested that we shall leave the House at a certain hour and that many Bills will be timetabled, for example. We are in great danger of giving the Government a weapon. The right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) said that he could cite very few examples of concessions having been given by Governments. I disagree. I would not wish to exaggerate and say that concessions are frequently given, but when the Government of the day are under sustained pressure and when time is our only weapon to force the Government to accept an accommodation--the same situation applies when the Opposition are Conservative--it is a weapon of considerable importance.
We are in danger of denying ourselves an important weapon. That is why I have many reservations about the proposals. It is all very well saying, "Yes, let's all be tidy
Column 1478and ensure that we finish at 7 o'clock. We shall timetable Bills and we shall not sit late." It would be wrong to take that course if, by so doing, we denied ourselves the important weapon of time. That is why I considered it necessary to table amendment (b).
Before the House goes into recess, we should have the opportunity to debate matters that concern us. Such debates should not be treated as formalities. We should not merely agree to a recess motion. Hon. Members should have the opportunity to air their grievances. If it is said that my remarks are inappropriate and that I am being too conservative, let me give two examples from our proceedings this afternoon.
The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Carttiss) is no longer in his place --I do not criticise him for that, especially after his speech--but it was clear that he had an important point to make. He believed that he had a constitutional right as a Member to do what he did over the recent vote on VAT. He made his point, and it would have been difficult for him to do so without the opportunities that the previous debate provided. Of course, it may have been embarrassing for the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) talked about Spain's treatment of Gibraltar. Not every hon. Member may have agreed with him, but surely it was right that, before leaving this place for the Christmas recess, my hon. Friend should be able to express his concern and to argue that the situation should be urgently considered. He is concerned about what may happen between now and our return to this place after the recess. I implore the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who is his shadow, whether or not my amendment is carried--I have referred already to the payroll vote--not to remove the basic right to discuss such matters.
The right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), who chairs the Procedure Committee, of which I am a member, has tabled an amendment which in some ways deals with my point. It would provide for a series of Adjournment debates, but they would not be within the framework of a motion for the recess, on which we could vote. That is crucial. Mr. Skinner rose --
I have read a great deal of nonsense recently about the supposed weaknesses of this place. We have been told that we are outdated and out of touch. Such criticism should be directed at the Government and not at the House. Our parliamentary democracy has served the British people well over the centuries, but I suppose it could be said that we have only had real parliamentary democracy for less than 100 years.
The House of Commons is an important place and an important institution. When I read what some of our critics write, I think to myself, "How long would their civil liberties last--five minutes?--if it were not for this place?" I take much pride in this place because I believe that all our freedoms are centred on it and on the way in which we carry
Column 1479on our business. We should not forget that. I do not take that pride because I have been a Member of the House for many years. We have seen dictatorships crumbling throughout Europe and elsewhere and in the past we heard people say, "That is the future." I then look at this place. The dictatorships go but we carry on. We survive because the House is so essential for the country. Whenever changes take place--no doubt they are important--they should not be at the expense of the right of Members to raise issues that concern them and to vote upon them. We should be able to use time as a weapon against the Government of the day. That is part of our procedure, or it should be. It is part of our parliamentary democracy, and that is why I have the reservations that I have expressed.
Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West): Like the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), I used to believe in the use of time as an effective weapon for the Opposition. The more one studies that view, however, the more ineffective a weapon it has proved to be for Oppositions over the past 30 years. The only occasions when I can recall Oppositions successfully using the weapon of time were the famous occasions of reform of the other place and proposed Scottish devolution legislation. Those Bills were considered in Committee on the Floor of the House. I understand that Bills so discussed in Committee are exempt from any of the proposals that are set out in the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). I think that the importance of the weapon of time is exaggerated, but I understand why the hon. Member for Walsall, North made the point.
The intervention of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) summed up the dilemma in which the House finds itself. If the result of the proposed reforms is to make the Executive more powerful, they will not have fulfilled their aims. On the other hand, the hon. Lady is right to say that if we can find a modified and effective way of scrutinising the Executive, why should hon. Members have to put up with appallingly late nights and inconvenient lives? Our life is bound to be inconvenient to some extent, but not necessarily to the extent that it is now.
I was reading earlier debates on these matters a few hours ago before this debate began. I read a speech by the late Dr. John Blackburn. In July 1991, he drew attention to the effect on Members' health of our present arrangements. How right, alas, he proved to be. There are many examples of hon. Members in ill health having to attend the House late at night.
Surely tonight we are not settling the Standing Orders of the House once and for all. If the experiment which is to be carried out for the next few months is a success, no doubt the House will wish to endorse it. On the other hand, if it is a great failure, I suspect that the experiment will not be renewed next Session. There must be a debate. We are talking about Sessional Orders which lapse unless they are renewed by the House at the beginning of the next Session. The experiment is absolutely essential if we are to make any changes. No one believes that the way in which we organise the House of Commons at the moment is ideal.
Column 1480Of course we have fewer late sittings than we had years ago. Until very recently, the average time at which the House rose did not vary very much. I believe that it probably went down last Session very considerably. However, for a very long period it was static and, for a longer period before that, it was much later. I do not believe that that had a noticeable effect on the way in which the House of Commons scrutinised the Executive, and I do not believe that the House will regret the loss of such late nights.
The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) said that most of the proposals do not help hon. Members who live outside London. It is extremely difficult to find proposals which help those who have constituencies near or in London and those who live miles away. The two interests are inevitably divergent. Those who live miles away would like to get away to their constituencies on a Thursday and perhaps return to the House later on a Monday. Those who live in or near London are probably just as interested in getting back home to their families--if they have them--at a reasonable hour in the middle of the week. Those two desires cannot be reconciled completely.
It seems that the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, and the acceptance by the Government, tries to make concessions to both points of view. It gives the provincial Member a chance to get back home earlier on a Thursday.
I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) in his new position to convey a message to the Leader of the House because I do not understand his proposal for Thursdays. I understand what is to happen on the Thursdays when we do not sit on Friday, but the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale recommends that even on Thursdays when we do sit on the Friday, the House should try to rise early. Is that the Government's plan? I should be grateful if that could be made clear.
The proposals are an extremely good compromise. There is an area towards which the Government have taken one step, but in respect of which I do not believe that they have not gone nearly far enough. I believe that it is quite intolerable that we are one of the very few Houses of Parliament where notice of business is given to Members at such short notice. The Government are taking steps to improve that. However, it is utterly ridiculous not to know until Thursday afternoon whether one can see someone in one's constituency on the Monday or Tuesday. Why cannot we know at least one week or even three weeks ahead what the business will be? If that means more changes to business than we are accustomed to, it would be well worth putting up with.
The same point applies to recesses. The Leader of the House has taken a step forward in that regard. It is welcome that we have been given more notice of recesses. It would be a great help to hon. Members--and perfectly practical--if my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House could go further than that and set out the major dates for a parliamentary Session when the Session begins, during the Queen's Speech, or very shortly afterwards.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, made that recommendation. No doubt he can confirm that such a procedure works very well in Commonwealth Parliaments such as those in Canada and Australia. They
Column 1481all said that it would be the end of the world, but it was not and now none of them would go back. I urge that that point is seriously considered.
Let us try this experiment. If we hate it, we can stop it. The House of Commons cannot just sit still and do nothing in the face of pressure among hon. Members of all parties for change and reform of our hours. This is a very good way of proceeding. Let us see whether it works and hope that it does.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): I hope that I can be as brief as the right hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon). I want to refer briefly to the changes that we are considering as they relate to minority parties. First, however, I add my tributes not just to the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) and his Select Committee for the original report, but to the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House for having cracked a very difficult problem which had created gridlock in respect of introducing the reforms over the past two and a half years.
I cannot understand why it has taken that length of time. We should consider these reforms as merely the beginning of an on-going process. The way in which politics is practised and the machinery of government change dramatically at an ever-increasing exponential pace. The experiences of the 1960s and 1970s are light years away from what we have to experience as hon. Members in the 1990s. The House of Commons has an on-going duty to review the way in which the procedures of the House work. It was interesting that the Leader of the House confessed that there were bits and pieces of Standing Orders which he barely knew existed. I think that that is not an unusual experience for all of us. On the occasions when one reads the fine print of some of the Standing Orders, it is astonishing to see what they still contain. We would do the House no service if we ignored the fact that our parliamentary processes should be continuously scrutinised to see whether they are still relevant. We should excise those that become otiose and irrelevant. We do not do that nearly enough.
I welcome the package of measures, which were the result of careful negotiations between the Government and the Opposition parties. I am grateful for the consideration that the Liberal Democrats and the other minority parties were shown. We must do better. We should start now to consider what will happen after Jopling.
Whoever fell upon the idea of changing the Sessional Orders was a genius. As the right hon. Member for Southend, West has said, those orders lapse automatically unless they are renewed. I assume that the Leader of the House will allow a debate before the summer recess so that we can review them and that we do not need to go through the process of having a debate on the Sessional Orders in advance of next year's Queen's Speech. I am sure that the arrangements will become clearer as the debate unfolds.
We should start to look at what further and better changes could be made. More work needs to be done; other proposals must be made; and consultations must continue between the Government and the Opposition parties so that further changes can be considered after the
Column 1482ones before us now have been determined. In that way the progress made will be further extended. Some other proposals may be abandoned or confirmed, and so much the better for that. We must not think that tonight's proposals are the end of the story and give up searching for further improvements to the way in which business is dealt with in the House.
I agree with the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) that one of the problems from which the House suffers is an unacceptable overload of business. We must confront that problem in the longer term. I do not think it is right that Parliament should just seek to digest everything that Departments throw at it in the Queen's Speech. Some machinery must be found and given effect to to try to equate what is attempted in the Government's annual legislative programme and the time available. That is absolutely essential. We should set up a business committee to consider the best practices of other legislatures, because a lot of them are way ahead of us in terms of following procedures suitable to modern democracies in the 1990s. We could learn a lot, for example, from the Canadian Parliament and other sister legislatures which have had some good ideas.
The usual channels are an essential part of the process. For the package of reforms to work in the spirit intended by the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale when his Committee published its report, the Government as well as the usual channels will have to exercise a lot of good faith. The usual channels can, however, be rather exclusive from the point of view of the minority parties. Although I am in favour of trying to get an agreed timetable on a voluntary basis within the usual channels, those consultations must extend to the minority parties if such an agreement is to be held by all the Opposition parties. If the two major parties--the Government and the Official Opposition--sit down and carve up an official timetable, they should not be surprised if the minority parties, which were not consulted in that process, do not sign up to the agreement struck. The need for wider consultation should be understood from the outset.
It is essential to the process of reform that private Members' time is protected. Unless the almost arithmetical formula explained by the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale is rigidly adhered to, the time allocated for private Members' business could begin to be lost. If that happened, the package of reforms would lose support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I accept, however, that the fear about losing the weapon of use of parliamentary time, as well as other old-fashioned, out-of -date and unfounded fears have been dealt with in the proposed reforms. For that reason, I am prepared to give them my support. But I am prepared to consider the package only if it is a first step in a process that will continuously review procedures, including the volume of legislation, changes that could be introduced in terms of Special Standing Committees and all the other ideas that have been discussed. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have asked for notice of business more than a week in advance. It is essential that we get more order into the parliamentary calendar. That is possible, given the political will. The Leader of the House is sympathetic to that request and I know as well as he does that there are problems in implementing it. But if he could go some way towards continuing to develop that, he would have support from both sides of the House.
Column 1483The package is fine in so far as it goes, but I hope that it is the start of a more detailed process in the long term.
Mr. John MacGregor (Norfolk, South): I am the former Leader of the House who set up the Jopling Committee, although I do not approve of the epitaph of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) that I am the proposal's grandfather. Having just become a grandfather in the real sense, to add another would be an aging process.
I am delighted that so many of the Committee's recommendations are now being implemented and I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his Committee again on all the work that they did. I could not be more pleased that it is my right hon. Friend the present Leader of the House who is implementing so many of the recommendations. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) on her constructive and sensible approach. While the recommendations are wide ranging, in essence the package is practical--as one would expect, given the balance of the original Committee--and that is how we shall achieve our objectives.
I shall deal immediately with the criticism that the proposals are designed to fetter the Opposition or Back Benchers. That is plainly wrong for the following reasons. First, the real impetus behind setting up the Committee in the first place was, as I found in my first six months as Leader of the House, the frustration of many Members on both sides of the House about how the House carries out its business. Secondly, the composition of the original Committee shows that I endeavoured to make it representative of all sections of the House, and Back Benchers were more prominent than anyone who represented the Government.
Thirdly, it is important to recollect that Members' responses to the questionnaire showed that their biggest concern was late-night sittings, with 83 per cent. then--and, I suspect, more now--wanting a reduction in late-night sittings to be the priority. Those who argue that late-night sittings give time for many Back Benchers to express their views fail to recognise that the vast majority of their colleagues think otherwise. It is sometimes important to pay attention to what the vast majority on both sides of the House believe.
Fourthly, to those who have looked at overseas Parliaments, it is clear that we give much more time than any other Parliament in the world to the Opposition and to Back Benchers. If we compare the balance between Government, Opposition and Back Benchers' time before the recommendations with the balance after the impact of the recommendations, we see that the balance has not changed. The Committee was extremely careful to keep that balance as it was before, so there is no erosion of Back Benchers' rights.
We must all recognise the fact that there is much time-wasting in the name of parliamentary democracy, often late at night, which contributes little to parliamentary democracy. Our constituents certainly think that it does not contribute to parliamentary democracy and that we are mad to engage in it.
Column 1484The Jopling report and its main recommendations reflect the right balance. The hon. Member for Dewsbury was right to put the emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness. We all know that this place has not been sufficiently effective in a number of areas. This package will enable it to become more so. I agree with the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) that there are other ways in which that can be achieved, including ways of achieving a more cost-effective operation of the House. We should reconsider the number of written questions that are tabled, but we should also consider many other matters. However, the changes that we are debating are important steps forward.
On timetabling, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. I understand the problems that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House had, but I hope that what is being proposed is to formalise what is at present a very informal arrangement.
I have often felt that the problem of the way in which we deal with Bills is that as a result of the procrastination that sometimes takes place, for reasons that we all understand, later parts of Bills hardly receive any scrutiny--certainly not the scrutiny that they deserve. Timetabling of Bills enables both sides of the House to consider those parts of Bills that they believe to be the most important in the greatest detail. I believe, therefore, that the principle of timetabling is to the benefit of both sides of the House. That is why I hope that the process will become much more formal, and allow for the interests of minority parties to be taken into account.
On private Members' time and the shift from Friday business to Wednesday business, I shall make two arguments to reinforce what so many people have said, and what was clearly in the evidence to the Committee. In recent years, constituency pressures have become much greater on all of us and we have to undertake many duties in our constituencies which cannot be carried out at the weekend, such as visits to schools and factories--I speak as an hon. Member representing a rural constituency some distance from London. We may be willing to do those things on Saturdays, but our constituents are not, so it is important to have that time on a Friday.
People who are worried about the loss of Back Benchers' time should recognise that the move to Wednesdays enables the issues to be raised at peak time as far as the focus is concerned. Frankly, the Consolidated Fund Bill debates hardly ever receive any notice outside this place because of the hours at which they take place, but if Back Benchers speak on a Wednesday morning and Wednesday lunchtime I can imagine that many of those debates will be featured in the media for the rest of the day. That is a strengthening of Back Benchers' position, rather than the reverse.
I strongly support the automatic referral of statutory instruments, because I believe that the changes that we made in the previous Parliament on the European Standing Committees were a major reason why hours late at night were reduced for all Members of the House. I also believe that the changes led to better scrutiny of the European instruments because we all know that often the attendance in the Chamber is not great late at night.
Column 1485I agree with other hon. Members about announcing the recesses in advance and endeavouring to announce at least two weeks of the business at any one time. As a former Leader of the House, I know well all the arguments against that. I know the pressures. I know that it is not easy to work out the business of the House each week. On the other hand, with determination, some of the difficulties can always be overcome and appear a great deal less than they do in advance. It makes it extraordinarily difficult for Members to plan diaries in the way that is done anywhere else if we have such short-term announcements. We must all accept that the second week is provisional, for reasons that many of us will well understand, but even if there are only one or two changes in a month in the provisional arrangements, that is a great advance.
I conclude with the two fundamental arguments that emphasise all the work of the Committee and the issues that we are discussing now. First, the arrangements will not work properly without the co-operation and self- discipline of Members on both sides of the House. We all know that parliamentary procedures that have been built up over time are such that those people who are determined to exploit them will be able to do so. If we are genuinely to reduce late sittings, as the vast majority of hon. Members want, co-operation and self-discipline are needed--including, incidentally, the length of speeches.
I have listened with great interest to the argument that Front Bench speeches should be restricted to 30 minutes, but that hon. Members should also give way to plenty of interventions from Members on both sides of the House. There is a conflict in that argument. Some of the longest speeches that I have made from the Front Bench were largely the result of taking a large number of interventions, so there will have to be a certain amount of self-discipline in that respect also.
The second argument concerns the wider importance of what we are debating today. It is extremely important that we continue to attract people of high quality to serve in Parliament. There are many influences at work that are making that much more difficult. Many people now recognise that they must take a substantial cut in salary to serve in this place. Several issues which the Nolan committee will have to consider may have an influence on deterring people from coming to this place. Also, there is often media attention on the trivial rather than on the serious. There is, above all, a feeling that the hours that we work and the way in which we conduct our business do not make people decide that they will seek a place in this House.
I have in mind, in particular, women Members of Parliament. There are many other reasons why we do not have enough women Members. I strongly believe and have always advocated that we must endeavour to have more women Members, and I should very much like that to happen. The recommendations, not least in relation to late sittings, will greatly help us in attracting not only people of high quality to this place but, above all, more women who are willing to serve as Members of Parliament. That is why I hope that the House will accept the recommendations today.
Column 14869.20 pm
Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow): I should like to explain why I intervened on the Leader of the House when he referred to the usual channels. On three occasions he referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who has had discussions with the right hon. Gentleman, and on another occasion he referred to myself. I want to make it clear that I was not involved in discussions between the usual channels; the discussions were rightly left to my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House. Twelve months ago I met the Leader of the House and other hon. Members, and we finished up with no agreement--needless to say. I speak on this occasion because I shall vote against some of the proposals, and I shall say why I oppose them.
I shall put two simple points to the House before I deal with the resolutions. First, the Government are elected to put legislation through the House. If there is any curtailment of debate on the Floor of the House, time will be taken from the Opposition or from Back-Bench Members. It is a simple fact. No one is suggesting that the Government, who are elected by the people, should not carry through the legislation in their manifesto. Hon. Members talk about cutting the hours of the House. Every Thursday at Business Questions I hear hon. Members ask the Leader of the House for statements, debates and so on.
Secondly--I speak now as Deputy Chief Whip--I see no reason why, halfway through a Parliament, when we have the Government on the ropes, we should give up any weapons. That is why I oppose one or two resolutions. If I am correct and the resolutions favour the Government, it would be best to have an objective debate and introduce the new practices after the next general election. The party which wins the next election would benefit from the resolutions.
We have had 21 Fridays off this calendar year. Apart from bank holidays and weekends, we have had 87 working days off. I do not know what hon. Members do if they do not want to speak to their constituents and become involved in constituency meetings. When I was elected originally in 1979, one could not move on a Friday for Conservative Back-Bench Members wanting to speak. What has changed? At that time, Conservative Back-Bench Members-- geographically, it is easy for them to be here on Friday--had bigger majorities and did not need to go to their constituencies. Now, every Conservative Back Bencher has a marginal seat. Therefore, Conservative Members cannot come here on a Friday; they must go to their constituencies. Also, the Government must have Conservative Members here on Fridays. On two occasions during the period of non-co-operation, when a Division was called, the Government could not provide a quorum. They could not provide 40 Members to be counted on a Friday. It is ironic that, not long ago, the House voted for Sunday trading. It was more or less said that every worker in the country should work on a Sunday--how hypocritical, when the House has met on only one Sunday this century.
I oppose abandoning the ways and means procedure, because it is a good tactic for Opposition Members. Indeed, in respect of Ways and Means resolutions, which are open-ended incidentally, the Government need 100 Members to force a closure after 10 o'clock. Clearly, the Government do not want to keep Tory Members here late at night, especially at a time when their morale is so low.
Column 1487As for affirmative resolutions, Standing Order No. 101 states that any Back Bencher who wants a debate on a statutory instrument on the Floor of the House has only to get up and shout "Object", with the support of 20 hon. Members, to achieve that. That right is now to be taken away from Back Benchers under a cosy agreement made through the usual channels. Already, too much European legislation and too many instruments are stuck away upstairs, so I am not happy with that proposal.
Most hon. Members will agree to some extent with the proposal on short speeches, but I would have liked the Jopling report to go further and to suggest that Privy Councillors should not have preference over anyone else. That would be fairer. It did not go unnoticed that the Chairman of the Committee was a right hon. Member himself. It also did not go unnoticed that he used to be a Government Chief Whip--that was why he was appointed.
I trust that many of my hon. Friends will join me in the Lobby against some of the resolutions tonight. My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) has negotiated a free vote: there will be no whipping on our side. That is why I can speak out tonight. Hon. Members should have the right to express their feelings; I am certainly expressing mine. I shall be voting against the motions. 9.26 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding): My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) and his Committee have done an exceedingly useful job for the House. They have produced a comprehensive report, summarising some complex and sometimes contradictory arguments that have been held in the House for a long time--certainly for a great deal longer than I have been here. The report is now a kind of locus classicus for any discussion of this subject.
There is a great deal in the report with which I agree. I have no objection to Wednesday morning sittings. I rather agree with the Jopling proposals, and the Government's proposals tonight, about Ways and Means and money resolutions. I have never understood the basis for such resolutions, other than to provide the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) with an opportunity to keep the House up late at night, sometimes for no obvious purpose. It always seemed to me that if the House willed a Bill through, it also willed the means. We are grown up enough, surely, to know that if we vote for something we must also vote for the money which the measure will involve being spent.
I also agree with the proposals to give the House better notice of recesses and longer notice of business coming before us. That is most welcome.
I do, however, have considerable reservations about what I think are the three essential resolutions--the one on statutory instruments, the one on sittings of the House and the one on short speeches. Just so that I do not immediately run into criticism, I shall try not to speak for too long on this last subject.
We hold this debate against a background of a steady decline in the respect in which Parliament is held and in the perceived influence that it has on our nation's affairs and on its vital purpose of law making, which is
Column 1488supposedly the primary function of any legislature. There are many symptoms of this declining regard: the greatly reduced attention that our proceedings receive in the press and the ever- increasing demands for referendums on all sorts of subjects among them. These are perhaps a reflection of a lack of confidence in the parliamentary process and a lack of commitment to Parliament as the centre of our constitution which had been taken for granted for so many centuries and generations. That is all very worrying.
It is tempting, of course, to ignore those facts, or if we cannot ignore the general drift in opinion, to put it down to forces beyond our control and say that it is nothing to do with us. I fear that that really is not good enough. It is something to do with us. It is no coincidence that Parliament has been a great deal less effective in its primary legislative role over the past generation or so than it had been for several centuries. Few private Member's Bills now get through on to the statute book; invariably almost all that do are sponsored or subsequently adopted by the Government. Few Back-Bench amendments to Bills, whether they come from Government or Opposition Back Benchers, remain on the Bill when it receives Royal Assent. Occasionally they get through in Standing Committee, but invariably are removed on Report.
That contrasts poorly not only with the past record of the House but of some other Parliaments--the European Parliament is a good example. There, some 50 per cent. of amendments tabled to directives get through and become part of the subsequent legislation or directive when promulgated by the Council of Ministers. The position in other democracies, such as the United States, is very different indeed. Congress is a genuine legislature. But here, thanks largely to the whipping system, the Government can be fairly confident that legislation drafted by the bureaucracy, but which Ministers defend ably once it comes before the House, will emerge from this place very much as it entered.
Not content with that enormous influence over primary legislation, the Government in recent years--it has been true of Governments of all political parties--have resorted increasingly to secondary legislation. Time and again Bills have come before the House that are extremely long and complex and not always well drafted, and they provide, in various clauses, for the Secretary of State to make regulations. Nobody in the House has the faintest idea what those regulations will be. Sometimes we can have a nasty shock. One of which hon. Members on both sides of the House are conscious is the Child Support Agency. We passed the Child Support Act 1991, which seemed to enshrine a worthy principle: that where a parent is in a position to support a child, the charge for supporting that child should fall in the first place on that parent, and only if no parent is able to assume that responsibility should the charge fall on the taxpayer through income support or other welfare payments. That seemed to be an unexceptional and worthy principle, and we all--at least Conservative Members--voted for it with great enthusiasm. We find, however, that some two years later there emerges from the bureaucracy an absolutely horrific rule book, which we could not have anticipated on the basis of statements made or discussions that were held on the original Bill and which is positively Orwellian in the detail into which it goes about the way
Column 1489in which families should spend their money and divide up their budget, and the relationships between parents and children, second families and first families and so forth.
That is just one small example, but the Government have bravely acknowledged precisely the point that I am making, because that was the point about the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. A great deal of legislation was pushed through the House, largely at the instigation of the bureaucracy, which was redundant, unfortunate, excessive and, in many cases, onerous to British industry. In many instances it was at variance with the principles of human freedom to which we are very much attached.
The Government therefore quite rightly decided to get rid of a lot of it. That was an extremely brave and positive initiative. It was brave because it is not always very easy for people, particularly for Governments, to recognise where there is an excess of legislation, or where their own activities have been excessive and to take the necessary measures to reverse that. That is, perhaps, the best testimonial of the point that I am making.
Against that background, we must examine what is proposed for the future workings of the House. The conclusions that we should draw are actually the reverse of those expressed in motions 4, 5 and 6, to which I have drawn attention. We want more, and more effective, scrutiny. We certainly do not want to reduce the time available for scrutiny. There is no question that a quid pro quo of the proposal to reduce the scope for the House to meet after 10 o'clock is that there will have to be virtually automatic-- although we do not use that term--universal timetabling of Bills. Clearly, that will reduce the opportunity for scrutiny. It introduces a great element of artificiality into the consideration of a Bill.
When one first reads a Bill it is impossible to know where the real pitfalls will arise and where it will be necessary to probe what is proposed more deeply and where it would be desirable to table amendments.
Mr. Cormack: My hon. Friend should have said that at the moment, with the system of rigid guillotine that is frequently used, vast chunks of Bills are never discussed at all. Many clauses of the Bill to reform the health service were never discussed on the Floor of the House.