Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Davies: I accept that the form of retrospective timetabling that we now use is highly undesirable. The solution lies not just in trying to limit the time of speeches in the Chamber, but in having some mechanism to allow the Chairmen of Committees, if there appears to be a filibuster or something like that, to impose a rule limiting the amount of time that any hon. Member can speak on any particular amendment or group of amendments. That would be sensible and would go some way towards meeting my hon. Friend's concerns.

This would have been a good opportunity to provide for the proper use of Special Standing Committees and I am sorry that we are not doing that. They take evidence before the usual Standing Committee procedure on Bills begins. That would be a way for Parliament to look carefully at the work of the bureaucracy in preparing Bills. On the question of statutory instruments, I have some hesitation about giving up albeit a theoretical right for 20 Members standing in their place to insist on bringing to

Column 1490

the Floor of the House a statutory instrument to which we object. As I have said, so much of secondary legislation is misconceived and does not get the parliamentary scrutiny that it should have. What is unclear from the motion--perhaps my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House might refer to this in his reply later--is what will happen in Committee if a resolution on a statutory instrument is defeated. With European Standing Committees, nothing happens--the fact that the resolution has been defeated has no practical influence on the future of the proposal before the Committee.

It is an irony of the present position that whereas this Parliament is supposedly a legislature and is regarded as such throughout the country, so much legislation--perhaps 99 per cent.--is, in practice, in the hands of the Executive branch of the Government. I am sorry that the opportunity has not been taken tonight to deal with that issue and to examine how Parliament could be made more effective, not just more convenient for those of us who happen to sit here. The great issue is whether or not Parliament will, in future, be an increasingly effective institution or whether it will be increasingly a merely decorative part of our constitution.

9.39 pm

Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central): I shall be brief, so that others have time to speak.

The hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) said it was crucial to ensure that the Executive was made more accountable, and that more scrutiny was possible. Let me make two comments. First, I oppose any change on the basis that, if that scrutiny is to work, Opposition parties and Back Benchers should be given more resources and opportunities. Some of the proposals that we are discussing, and some of what has been said about money and Ways and Means motions, suggest that they will lose those opportunities.

I know that compulsory timetabling is not currently proposed, but I suspect that it may well be the next stage in the changes that are being made. I accept the existence of voluntary timetables, but if we are to have a compulsory system we shall have to change many of our other procedures in the Chamber; otherwise we shall merely be giving the Government additional resources and powers. If our purpose is to ensure that legislation is subject to scrutiny, we must be very cautious about taking such a step. Certain procedures could make this place more effective, but timetabling in itself will merely reduce the rights of individual Members and their constituents.

My second point is this. Having listened to most of the debate, I am irritated by the sense of complacency that has been evident. Many Conservative Members have agreed to, and voted for, reductions in the rights of the House of Commons. Let us consider the constitutional changes that have taken place--the growth of agencies and quangos, for instances. Such changes take power away from the House of Commons.

Mr. Bennett: And there has been a reduction in the rights of local government.

Mr. Fatchett: My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

During the 10 years in which I have been a Member of Parliament, I have seen the powers of individual Members reduced in the interests of the Executive and the supposed

Column 1491

interests of efficiency. We must achieve a balance between efficiency and accountability; if we concentrate too much on efficiency, we shall reduce the accountability of the Executive to us as Members of Parliament. I would have given much more credence to what hon. Members have said tonight if they had been jealous of our rights over the past 10 or 15 years. A significant constitutional revolution has taken place, reducing the rights of the House of Commons.

The hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding mentioned the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. He should remember that in that Act Parliament agreed to empower the Executive, by means of secondary legislation, to abolish and amend primary legislation. That substantial constitutional change was made without a squeal from Conservative Members. When we talk of the rights of the House, we must balance accountability with efficiency; but let us always opt for accountability, and the rights of Opposition parties and Back Benchers.

9.43 pm

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton): I take issue immediately with the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett). I shall produce figures to show that Back Benchers' powers to raise matters in debates will be increased rather than reduced by the proposals that we are discussing.

This is a silver day for me. As Chairman of the Procedure Committee, for 11 years I fought to drag the House's procedures more into the 20th century than ever before. It is not a golden day, because many of the recommendations are not, as it were, in tablets of stone in the Standing Orders; let us hope, however, that they will be in time.

We should surely welcome the fact that we are cutting late-night sittings dealing with legislation. That must be wrong. It cannot make sense and thank goodness for the change.

The press refers to eight Fridays off. That is typical of the media and the British Broadcasting Corporation. They are entirely misleading the public. The proposal will mean that, on those days, hon. Members can go to their constituencies and visit schools and factories, which they are not able to do normally other than in the long summer recess.

I understand what Front-Bench Members are trying to do, reflected in the answer that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House gave me at column 803 of Thursday's Hansard . When it comes, however, to limitation of speeches by Front-Bench Members, early notification of major debates, dates of the recess, avoidance of late sittings, avoidance of highly contentious business after 7.30 pm on a Thursday, prayers settled by agreement, Second Reading Committees by agreement and voluntary timetabling of Bills, we shall have to have a lot of "best endeavours". I wish both Front-Bench Members well in bringing those things about.

I refer to the only major point that I wish to make. It involves the concern about the time available for hon. Members. The 1993-94 Session was shorter than the one on which the Jopling figures were based, with 154 sitting days and about 31 Wednesdays. In 1993-94, hon. Members spent 117 hours on private Members' motions,

Column 1492

the last-day-before-recess debate, the Consolidated Fund Bill and the three-hour debate. There were 82 different debates.

On the basis of what will be brought in by the recommendations, with 31 Wednesdays, there will be 139 hours of debate on Wednesday mornings, which is about 22 hours more than in 1993-94. Furthermore, hon. Members will have twice as many opportunities to raise subjects of their choice--there will be 155 Adjournment debates compared with the 82 debates of 1993-94. The people who say that the

recommendations will decrease the power of Back Benchers do not understand the resolutions.

I apologise for my cold. On guillotining and timetabling, will people please look at the last recommendation of the Select Committee on Procedure? That contained no proposal for permanent timetabling. It was left to the Bill's Standing Committee to decide the issue of timetabling. It said that a Sub-Committee should be appointed for every Bill. If after 15 hours, the Bill was not being proceeded with according to the wishes of the usual channels, a date should be set for the Bill to be reported out of Committee. If after another 15 hours, that was not working, a timetable motion would not be moved on the Floor of the House, but the Sub-Committee should recommend a timetable so that every part of Bill would be discussed. That makes a lot more sense. It leaves power in the hands of the Committee. Surely that is a better way of dealing with the matter. That being the case, I hope that we can consider the issue again.

The Procedure Committee has agreed to monitor the aspects of these motions over the whole period and to start taking evidence in May and June in the hope that we can report by the end of the summer recess. Then the usual channels of both sides can decide whether it is necessary to amend the position, to introduce more Sessional Orders or to put the proposal into the Standing Orders. I hope that that will be helpful. With that, I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will vote for the proposal and wish it a fair wind. 9.48 pm

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): I have been here before. I have heard all today's speeches to the effect that there will be no loss of time for Back Benchers and that everything will be all right. We heard John Silkin say that about the Consolidated Fund Bill many years ago when it used to be open-ended, but that came to an end. Standing Order No. 20 and private notice questions are rarely used and have all but gone and the same will be true of opportunities for Back Benchers to raise important matters. My guess is that this is the thin end of the wedge, but it is something that we shall debate again and again. We are handing valuable parliamentary time to the Government.

I came here to oppose this lousy, rotten Government and it is my job to keep them up all night if necessary. I have not come here to take part in a cosy consensus. We are here because we do not represent the standards that the Conservatives represent: they represent the bosses and we represent the workers. It is my job to ensure that people outside understand that.

Hon. Members say that they want to work better hours, but I take great exception to the four-day week being proposed today. There are 4 million people without jobs. Why are we not campaigning and passing legislation for a four-day week for those outside--the real wealth creators--so that we can mop up the vast numbers of the

Column 1493

unemployed? If the House wants to work proper hours--9 am until 5 pm--let us get rid of all the moonlighters in the House. Hon. Members could start work at 9 am and finish at 5 pm and not work in the City, the boardrooms or the law courts--they would have to be here and, if necessary, clock on.

9.50 pm

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr): The one word that has been missing from our debate today has been "quality". I am referring not to the quality of speeches but to the quality of legislation. The only people to gain from the mish-mash of legislation of appalling quality that we pass are lawyers, not our constituents. That has to be a major factor in our consideration.

I am ashamed to do so, but I must plead guilty to working seven days a week, although not all that work is necessarily done in the House. I have served as a Government Back Bencher, an Opposition Back Bencher and an Opposition Front Bencher, and I must say that a load of romantic myths have been piddled here--[ Laughter. ]--peddled here tonight about the effectiveness of our current procedures. All those who complain about the proposed changes appear to be defending the status quo as something that has worked and prevented the Government from abusing the House. We know that, in the past 15 years, that has not been so. To try to defend the indefensible is not a satisfactory way to carry on in the latter part of the 20th century.

Certainly, we want better scrutiny and accountability, but the time is an overrated weapon. I have used it and abused it in government and in opposition, and a fat lot of good it did my constituents. In extremis, that weapon is still available to the Opposition, whatever party forms the Opposition.

The most conservative group of people that I have come across are Members of Parliament asked to discuss procedural change. As the Chairman of the Procedure Committee knows, there are many changes that could be brought about. Why are 10-minute Bills introduced only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; why not on Mondays and Thursdays--simply because that is how the system has developed? I know that it is radical, but why not allow hon. Members to ask two supplementary questions at Question Time, so that Ministers cannot run away after answering only one? What about early-day motions being tabled in recesses to give us parliamentary privilege when raising issues? There are many ways to modernise the way in which the House works and give more power to Back Benchers, without defending the indefensible. Some people claim that this place is the bee's knees of parliamentary legislatures and a beacon to the rest of the world, but most of the rest of the world has passed us by. Most of the legislatures based on our Parliament have modernised themselves over the years. Although they talk about this place as the mother of Parliaments, none of them apes our present procedures, which are not as effective as we may think they are.

One hon. Member mentioned Finance Bills and said that the rules that applied to Finance Bills were different. I remember that a couple of years ago, at the end of the debate on the Second Reading of the Finance Bill, I stood up at 10 pm and was called. The most horrified people in the House were my own Whips, who said, "Sit down, you

Column 1494

are letting hon. Members know about the rules." The 10 o'clock rule does not apply to Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

The Finance Bill rule has been used on only one occasion in the past 15 years, when there was a concerted attack by the Opposition to bring the Government to heel in October 1984. We did not win, but the Government gave up their wind-up speech on their own Finance Bill. We made our point; the rule has been used only once.

The limits on hon. Members' speeches will be widely accepted. I hope that you use them with discretion, quality and efficiency, Madam Speaker. There is no God-given right for people who have served in this place for 30 years, ex-Cabinet Ministers and Privy Councillors, to take up the time that other hon. Members could make better use of.

9.55 pm

Mr. Newton: I ventured to suggest rather wryly in my opening speech that there were some signs that the debate would become a bit of a Christmas tree. It has done, with proposals ranging rather wider than those I have presented to the House. I will, of course, reflect on the various points raised, but I will not attempt to go far down those other paths tonight.

I welcome the robust common sense of much of what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has just said, and I also welcome the similarly sensible approach, although slightly quieter in delivery, from the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor). Given that the hon. Gentleman's experience and mine go back over many of the same all-night sittings in the late 1970s, I well understand what he says.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor) was described as the grandfather of the proposals by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), who described himself as the father.

Mr. Jopling: No.

Mr. Newton: Even if my right hon. Friend did not describe himself as that, I describe him as such. I suppose that that probably makes me the midwife. I can only say that the baby has had the gestation period of an elephant. I hope that it will prove to be similarly robust now that it is finally born.

The debate may well be remembered not for my proposals, but for the rare appearance of the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) as a speaker in our proceedings. Rarely have I seen so many people sucked into the House so quickly. His pulling power is such that clearly we should hear from him more often.

There has been a general welcome from almost everybody in the debate, apart from the hon. Members for Jarrow and for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), and there were some slightly Delphic remarks from my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies). In general, there was a welcome, so I shall comment quickly on a few specific points that were asked.

I cannot advise the House to support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). As my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said, the amendment conflicts directly with a provision in his report. I can, however, say this, and I hope that it will give the hon. Gentleman some hope.

Column 1495

If the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) had been selected, I would have advised the House to accept it. I shall look at such proposals during the review that we have undertaken to have towards the end of the Session. I cannot tell the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) at the moment that the review will be prefaced by a debate before the summer recess, but I shall bear the thought in mind. I noted the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale about statutory instruments being taken after 10 pm. I indicated our general acceptance of the proposition that fresh business would not normally be started after 10 pm. I also heard what my right hon. Friend said about statements on Wednesdays. The House might not wish to lock itself absolutely into a position in which, even if the most urgent thing arose, there was no possibility of a statement. I can undertake, however, that Ministers will not seek to abuse the proposal, and that the norm would be statements at 3.30 pm.

I propose to advise Ministers that they should normally reckon to come to the House with 20 minutes of material. If there were interventions, they would not then immediately be forced beyond half an hour.

In answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), yes, as I think we have shown already, we shall normally try to schedule what may be called light business for Thursday evenings, regardless of whether it is followed by one of the Fridays, although I cannot give an absolute guarantee of that. My last point, because I am rapidly running out of time, is one of encouragement for the hon. Member for Jarrow, who appeared to gain rousing applause for his attack on Privy Councillors. Of course, the extension of the 10-minutes rule at least means that Privy Councillors will not be called at a time when they can indulge themselves by taking half a hour, only to leave many others with ten minutes later; so something has been done to redress the balance. Whether that is approved of by all the Privy Councillors on the Labour Front Bench, I do not know. That is for them to say. The point on which I have been heavily pressed further, and of which I take note, concerns greater notice of parliamentary business. I cannot go further tonight, but the message is very clear, and I shall of course reflect on it.

It being Ten o'clock, Madam Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to Order [9 December].

The House divided: Ayes 217, Noes 41.

Division No. 26] [10.00 pm


Column 1495

Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)

Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan

Alexander, Richard

Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)

Amess, David

Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)

Arbuthnot, James

Armstrong, Hilary

Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)

Atkins, Robert

Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)

Column 1495

Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)

Bates, Michael

Battle, John

Beith, Rt Hon A J

Beresford, Sir Paul

Betts, Clive

Bonsor, Sir Nicholas

Booth, Hartley

Boswell, Tim

Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)

Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia

Column 1496

Bowis, John

Brandreth, Gyles

Bright, Sir Graham

Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)

Browning, Mrs. Angela

Burns, Simon

Butler, Peter

Byers, Stephen

Callaghan, Jim

Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)

Carrington, Matthew

Carttiss, Michael

Channon, Rt Hon Paul

Church, Judith

Clapham, Michael

Clappison, James

Clark, Dr David (South Shields)

Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)

Coe, Sebastian

Coffey, Ann

Conway, Derek

Coombs, Simon (Swindon)

Cope, Rt Hon Sir John

Cormack, Patrick

Corston, Jean

Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John

Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)

Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)

Davies, Quentin (Stamford)

Dicks, Terry

Dobson, Frank

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James

Dover, Den

Dowd, Jim

Duncan, Alan

Eagle, Ms Angela

Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter

Enright, Derek

Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)

Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)

Faber, David

Fabricant, Michael

Flynn, Paul

Forman, Nigel

Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)

Forth, Eric

Foster, Rt Hon Derek

Foster, Don (Bath)

Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)

Freeman, Rt Hon Roger

French, Douglas

Gallie, Phil

Gapes, Mike

Garnier, Edward

Gillan, Cheryl

Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair

Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles

Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)

Greenway, John (Ryedale)

Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)

Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)

Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn

Gunnell, John

Hague, William

Hall, Mike

Hampson, Dr Keith

Hanson, David

Harman, Ms Harriet

Harris, David

Hawkins, Nick

Heald, Oliver

Heathcoat-Amory, David

Henderson, Doug

Hendry, Charles

Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael

Hill, Keith (Streatham)

Next Section

  Home Page