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22 May 1997 : Column 900

REFERENDUMS (SCOTLAND AND WALES) BILL [MONEY]

Queen's recommendation having been signified--

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a),


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Procedure (Modernisation)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Clelland.]

7.19 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor): Mr. Deputy Speaker, thank you for calling me to open this debate during which we shall discuss some of the ideas that have been advanced for modernising the procedures of the House of Commons. I am pleased that the Government have been able to provide time for the debate during only the second full week of this Parliament. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Hon. Members must leave the Chamber quickly and quietly. There is a debate going on and the Leader of the House is at the Dispatch Box.

Mrs. Taylor: I hope that, by holding this debate so early in the Parliament, we have proved our serious intent in terms of facilitating improvements in the workings of Parliament.

After only two or three weeks in this place, many new Members are bewildered by some of the practices of the House and are keen to see some changes. I am glad to see so many hon. Members present for this debate, not least because there has been little interest when we have debated the workings of the House previously.

We have encountered some practical problems since Parliament resumed--including hon Members' complaints about the difficulty of fitting so many of them into one Division Lobby. I know that hon. Members are considering some imaginative solutions to that problem.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): I have two specific ideas that my right hon. Friend and others might consider. First, the construction of a third desk in the Lobbies would allow the traffic to flow more quickly. Secondly, we could examine the two-minute break between the announcement of the Division and the tellers going to the Doors. Those two proposals could conceivably save three or four minutes.

Mrs. Taylor: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his constructive suggestion. I hope that there will be many more such suggestions not just this evening, but during the sittings of the proposed Select Committee on modernisation. I note that my hon. Friend did not suggest introducing electronic voting or anything like that; that may be because he has been in this place long enough to know the value of Divisions, when hon. Members have a chance to meet their colleagues and--whether they are the newest or the most experienced Back Benchers--to lobby Ministers. I hope that many ideas will be forthcoming in that area.

This evening I shall discuss some of the issues that I believe the new Committee should address. As shadow Leader of the House, I made it clear that, although I think that Parliament can deal excellently with some issues and situations, it does not organise itself to do the best possible job in other areas.

The roles of Back Benchers and new Members of Parliament have changed over the years. When I first came to the House in the mid-1970s--I must admit that

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it is a long time ago--Back Benchers could adopt two distinct roles. The first was to climb the ministerial ladder, starting as a parliamentary private secretary; the second, very legitimate and respected, role was to become a senior Back Bencher. That group dominated many debates and Question Times. It may be that, with many Back Benchers on one side of the House, more hon. Members will be interested in developing the role of the Back Bencher. I think that it is in the interests of the House to recreate and re-evaluate that role. We should have regard to that point when considering possible changes.

The second big change that has occurred since the 1970s is a consequence of one party being in government for 18 years. I do not seek to make a partisan point, because it might have happened to any party that stayed in power for a long time. After a time, the Conservative Government believed that they could get away with anything, do anything and push any legislation through the House; while too many Opposition Members believed that they could not achieve anything.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): If that is the case, would it not be a good idea to introduce a freedom of information Act immediately? That would ensure that that situation does not arise again.

Mrs. Taylor: I ask my hon. Friend to be patient, as I shall return to that point later. As a very experienced senior Back Bencher, she will agree that there is a danger of Governments and Oppositions adopting rigid roles. For a time in the 1980s, the Labour party suffered from Oppositionitis and the Government suffered from--

Mr. Skinner: Arrogance.

Mrs. Taylor: --Governmentitis--or arrogance, as my hon. Friend neatly puts it. It may be time to reassess the role of both sides. When the Prime Minister told a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party that we are the servants now, he was reinforcing the need for Governments to re-examine their role and not act with the arrogance that, as my hon. Friend pointed out, was the hallmark of the recent past.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): While the right hon. Lady is on the theme of arrogance--and lest anyone misunderstand her comments--will she pursue that line in the context of her colleagues' recent actions when they displayed what many inside and outside the House regard as arrogance by making very important policy statements outside Parliament without consulting this place? That does not seem to be a very good background against which to develop the hon. Lady's argument.

Mrs. Taylor: I was hoping to have a constructive debate this evening. As a Minister in the previous Government--recalling his time as Education Minister, I believe that he was guilty occasionally--the hon. Gentleman should be cautious about his remarks. I think that all Ministers should treat the House with the respect that it deserves, as I said during business questions earlier today. Any change in Government policy should be reported to the House, but I do not think that statements should be made on the Floor of the House about every policy item--that certainly never happened when the hon. Gentleman's party was in government.

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Whenever parliamentary change is discussed, everyone mentions the Jopling reforms and the changes that were introduced some time ago. I remind the House of two things. First, as I said at the time, Jopling dealt with only a narrow range of issues: the hours of Parliament and how they were arranged; and, to a certain and minor extent, the balance between Committee work and work on the Floor of the House.

Secondly, hon. Members should remember that, although Jopling reported relatively quickly, the House sat on the report for almost three years before implementing its recommendations. I hope that, when a new Committee is established and begins to report to the House--hopefully, there will be a succession of reports; I do not want it to deliberate for two years before offering some ideas--there will be change relatively quickly, and much agreement about moving on some of its recommendations.

Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): I welcome my right hon. Friend's remarks about moving quickly. As she will know, many of the new Labour Back Benchers are women. They and other new Members of Parliament must have an opportunity to contribute to parliamentary Committees while they are relatively new. We should listen to their experiences and take advantage now of their expertise and skills.

Mrs. Taylor: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I share her concern that we should move quickly in setting up departmental Select Committees so that hon. Members have a chance to work in the way that they wish.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): For accuracy, and only for that, it should be made clear that implementation of the report of the Jopling Committee, on which the right hon. Lady and I served, was held up for many moons by an hon. Member with a small majority who used to sit on the Opposition Front Bench as the deputy Chief Whip. He was against anything all the while on the Jopling report. It must be made clear that that was the delaying factor.

Mrs. Taylor: I think that there were several hon. Members on both sides of the House who were not happy with the proposed changes. In the end, however, those changes were implemented. I like to think that I played some small part in that process.

The fact that we on the Government Benches want to encourage the House to change should come as no surprise to anyone. It is made clear in the Labour party's manifesto that we, the Labour party, believe that the House is in need of modernisation and that we will ask the House to establish a Select Committee to review its procedures. I have said over a long time that I think that the House needs change.

The desire to improve the workings of Parliament is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Yes, there have been some--on both sides of the Chamber--who have resisted change, but the majority, certainly on the Labour Benches, and a good many who represent the minority parties and those who represent the official Opposition, want constructive change. There is a wish to take the opportunity that is now available to us.

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I wish to signal priorities and the way in which the Committee might consider the issues that I think need attention. There are four themes to the changes that could perhaps be brought about. First, and, I think, the most important, is the production of better legislation. In that, we all have a responsibility. Ministers have a responsibility, and so does Parliament generally. After all, we are the legislature. I hope that the new Committee will give that area particular priority.


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