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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

Question agreed to.

4 Jun 1997 : Column 500

Modernisation of the House of Commons

Motion made, and Question proposed,

10.16 pm

Mr. Alastair Goodlad (Eddisbury): Madam Speaker--[Laughter.] I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When you played in the back row of the Cambridge university scrum, you looked rather different. I did not recognise you with your rugger jersey off.

When the House discussed the subject of the motion, I made it clear that the Opposition welcomed the Government's decision to give priority to discussions on parliamentary procedure. The Leader of the House will remember from our debate two weeks ago that we undertook to offer constructive comment on the Government's proposals in that area.

I begin with the Government's suggestion that the first responsibility of the new Committee should be to produce a report on improving procedures for examining legislative proposals. Clearly that is a helpful subject for the Committee to address, and I hope that we can agree that all Members should seek to improve the quality of legislation--[Interruption.]--even those who seek to conduct their discussions in the House from a sedentary position.

The wording of the motion, however, is somewhat imprecise, implying that the new Committee will need to report on every aspect of the content, drafting and debating of legislation. If that is indeed what the right hon. Lady has in mind, I fear that the Committee might be in danger of becoming bogged down in consideration of aspects of the legislative process in which the House would think that there was no need for change.

In discharging its responsibilities, it is important that the new Committee should have the benefit of proper evidence and specialist advice, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will be in his place. The new Committee should have the powers listed in the motion.

I am glad that we are making speedy progress in establishing this Committee, not least because the House will be aware that the context for our discussions on the new Committee has changed rather since our amicable debate two weeks ago. It has become clear that to the Government, modernisation may mean changes to the

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House's procedures in the interests of government. I know that the hon. Member for Bolsover does not regard the interests of government as being his.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Do not go so fast.

Mr. Goodlad: Am I going too fast for the hon. Gentleman?

It has become clear that to the Government, modernisation may mean changes to the House's procedures in the interests of government and the small, secretive and unelected group of political appointees at their heart, rather than the interests of this House and our constituents. [Interruption.] Our constituents are far from the mind of the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is growling from a sedentary position. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] Perhaps he was not growling--perhaps his tummy was rumbling. I would almost prefer not to think about it, and I hope we shall not be hearing it again.

I remind the Leader of the House of her words in our debate two weeks ago. She said:

I could not have put it better myself. Those words have additional resonance given her decision earlier this week to guillotine the debate before the commencement of the Committee stage of a major constitutional Bill, leaving grossly inadequate time for debate while the usual channels were excluded from the normal negotiations.

The Leader of the House also will be aware that the House has been concerned at the lack of consultation on important changes to the format of Prime Minister's Question Time and at the habit of Ministers of making policy announcements outside this House. The number of political appointments made by the new Government--clearly a surprise to the Lobby fodder--also has direct implications for the work of this House, but has not been debated by this House. The Lobby fodder perhaps do not wish to participate in debates in this House. They will not be allowed to, and one wonders why they came here. Despite their reluctance to engage in debate, they will, no doubt, be accepting the remuneration due to them.

I hope that the Leader of the House will not succumb to any temptation or further pressure from her ministerial colleagues to use the new Committee as a means for the Government to entrench the abuses of their large majority. She has got off to a start in her relationships with this House which varies in the perceptions of hon. Members and outside observers between indifferent, disastrous and catastrophic. Her behaviour and that of the Government over the deliberations before us will be carefully studied.

10.24 pm

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart): I welcome the setting up of the Select Committee and I hope that it will consider not only minor adjustments to our procedures but the whole way in which we operate. Our Prime Minister has promised to have a radical Government. He can start

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by being radical in the way in which he decides to change the House itself. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is determined that that is the route that she will take.

We are overburdened with business here and do things in terms of legislation that we simply should not be doing; they should be done at another level of government altogether and in the most appropriate area in terms of where they impinge on the public. We have started that process with devolution.

Everyone thinks about devolution for Scotland and Wales in terms of what it will do for those countries, but in fact it will benefit Parliament, because we will free up time that is currently taken up with legislating on Scottish and Welsh matters and we will be able to devote that time to giving proper scrutiny to other matters. That is a good start, but it is only a start: we must also look at how we devolve power elsewhere in our society so that we begin to ensure that we free this place to give proper scrutiny to government.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) made an interesting speech a fortnight ago, but he suggested that, when we modernise, changing the forms and the style will not much matter, and I disagree with that. If we are to have a modern, efficient Parliament that works democratically, we must get rid of many of the symbols of an 18th-century Parliament that are well out of date and make us look quaint and so old-fashioned that it is almost unbelievable.

Many of the electorate think that much of what we do is absurd, and we must consider that. I am sorry to say it with the Serjeant at Arms sitting here, but we must get rid of the uniforms, the swords and the wigs, and change the way in which we appear to the public, our electorate.

I have heard people say that our strange customs make us a good tourist attraction, but that is not what I was elected for, however attractive I might be; I was elected to represent my constituents and do the best possible job for them, scrutinising the Government of the day--of whichever party they are formed--and ensuring that we do so efficiently. We cannot do that in a Parliament with the current style, and that is the first thing that we must change.

The very large majority at present has made the way in which we vote seem even more absurd than it did in the past, when numbers were fairly equal on either side. Going through the Lobby these days is a long-drawn-out and unnecessary process. We should devise a system of electronic voting to ensure that we can vote quickly and efficiently, with the votes and the outcome seen straight away, and we do not take half an hour of our time doing it.

We should consider proxy voting. I hope that we never return to the days of ambulances parked outside in New Palace yard with people lying in them while someone nods them through to vote. Their votes should be recorded without their having to be present.

Most of my new hon. Friends are accustomed to working in an environment with an office, secretaries and computers that are connected to the Internet. Here, some of them are still waiting to get an office. It is absurd.

I live in Hamilton, which has a population of 60,000. It was cabled in six months by a company that dug up the roads and laid the cables. People who want cable can have it their homes. It will take 10 years to complete the

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cabling of this building and its outbuildings and ensure that every Member who wishes it has access to the increasing number of electronic devices that should be available to a Member who wishes to do his job efficiently.

We have a Government who want us to think the unthinkable. It is time that we thought the unthinkable about this place; it is time that we moved somewhere else. It is time that we built a modern, efficient, new Parliament outside London altogether so that we can operate, and represent our constituents, properly in a modern democratic manner.

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