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Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): I did not speak earlier in the debate so that we could get to the end of these proceedings. I have two or three suggestions which should be dealt with. The Committee should look at the possibility, at long last, of providing more time for private Members' Bills. It should also deal with the Order Paper. Many suggestions have been made over many years about changing our antediluvian Order Paper.

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There is also the question of voting, which is pretty chronic. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) made a point on my behalf about deaths. The two minutes that we lose at the beginning of Divisions should also be considered.

If there is any attempt to go to a 9 to 5 parliamentary day, the House should bear this point in mind. What we need is to cut out all the moonlighting. One Member of Parliament should do one job, which means that we can do the thing at a stroke.

Mrs. Taylor: I am not quite so optimistic as my hon. Friend about modernising at a stroke. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) said, we can at this stage only make a start, but make a start we must.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has come up with some suggestions. Although I would not agree with all of them, it is right that the Committee should consider all such things--certainly private Members' Bills and the Order Paper. As has been said, anybody--especially a new Member or a visitor--is extremely puzzled by the Order Paper. I am sure that more can be done in that area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover has suggested having three desks in the Lobby. He made that suggestion two weeks ago. I understand that it has been tried in the past, but that does not mean that it should not be considered again. When he talks about the House sitting from 9 to 5, in a sense I return to what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) said. I agree with her that we need a sort of concentrated week so that hon. Members with non-London constituencies can spend guaranteed time outside Westminster being in touch with and representing their constituents. We must ensure that we get the balance right so that we can protect interests there.

I hope that the new Committee will meet as soon as possible, work quickly and look at the four areas that I indicated were our priorities: legislation, accountability of Ministers, best use of Ministers' time and customs and practices. The Government have already announced that they intend to publish a record number of draft Bills. That presents us with extra opportunities to explore possibilities and see how the Bills would work in practice.

Mr. Tyler: I think that the Leader of the House made a slip of the tongue just now, which is very important to correct. I think that she referred to the best use of Ministers' time, but she probably meant the best use of hon. Members' time. That is a very important distinction.

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Since we are very concerned in this debate not simply to expedite Government business but to improve it, perhaps she would like to correct that impression.

Mrs. Taylor: If I said "Ministers' time" I certainly did not mean it. Ministers have to spend more time in London, so getting to their constituencies is an extra problem. If we concentrate the parliamentary week, we shall allow Ministers--those who are also hon. Members--to do their constituency work as well. However, I was thinking primarily of hon. Members and not Ministers in that context.

There seems to be a great deal of good will towards the whole idea of modernising our procedures. We have a different type of opportunity from any ever before--certainly in all the years that I have been in the House. I therefore hope that the Committee will undertake its task as speedily as possible and ensure that we make this Parliament as efficient and as effective as we possibly can. I am sure--at least, I hope--that the Committee will meet the expectations of the House since there is now more interest in change than ever before. We all have a responsibility to ensure that the change that we adopt is practical, workable and will improve our parliamentary democracy.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Committee shall seek to make a first report to the House before the summer adjournment with its initial conclusions on ways in which the procedure for examining legislative proposals could be improved;
That five be the Quorum of the Committee;
That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records; to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House; to report from time to time; and to appoint specialist advisers;
That Mr. Joe Ashton, Sir Patrick Cormack, Mr. Huw Edwards, Sir Peter Emery, Mr. Alastair Goodlad, Mr. Mike Hall, Helen Jackson, Mr. Peter L. Pike, Mr. Clive Soley, Rachel Squire, Dr. Phyllis Starkey, Mr. Andrew Stunell, Mrs. Ann Taylor, Mr. Paul Tyler and Mr. Nicholas Winterton be members of the Committee;
That this Order be a Standing Order of the House until the end of the present Parliament.



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Local Government Finance (Oxfordshire)

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

11.28 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I am grateful for being granted this debate. It seems appropriate that, as I have just witnessed a debate on the modernisation of the House, my first speech following my maiden speech should take place at this hour. However, as a former hospital junior doctor, I am well used to working at such nocturnal times. I hope to ensure in what follows that the House is not the victim, as the national health service sometimes is, of slowness and errors caused by overtired people working under too much pressure.

It may be argued that the difference between then and now is that, during the long nights in hospitals, I had direct influence over people's welfare, their care and their lives. However, I would argue that in our treatment of the revenue support grant, budget and capping of Oxfordshire county council, we in the House also have the lives and welfare of the people of Oxfordshire in our hands. They rely on the services, especially education and social services, provided by Oxfordshire county council for their care and well-being.

I shall not attempt to parade all the arguments that the county council would use to seek to persuade the Government to redetermine the capping level at the budget already fixed by the county council. Those arguments will be put clearly if--and, I believe, when--the county council decides to appeal against the initial designation by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. With other hon. Members for the county of Oxfordshire, some of whom are in their places tonight, I will support that appeal at the appropriate moment.

I will not seek to make a party political or partisan speech, because the issue does not divide people along party lines in Oxfordshire, since the above-cap budget has all-party support there. Oxfordshire is not the sort of place where politicians are usually shy about disagreeing with opposing politicians. I think especially of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), of the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who is the Minister for Employment and Disability Rights, and, of course, of my predecessor, John Patten. I will seek instead to outline why Oxfordshire has an excellent case for its appeal and why there is no reason, with such cross-party consensus locally and in the House tonight to some degree, why the Government--committed as they are to listening and dispensing with blunt instruments--should not agree, on close examination of the detailed case, that the budget set by the county council is right and proper.

In the spirit of constructive opposition that saw the Liberal Democrats vote for the Queen's Speech, I shall quote from the Labour manifesto, although one of the most appealing aspects of the Gracious Speech was that it contained items to be found only in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. The section in the Labour manifesto headed "Good local government" stated:

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    "Local decision-making should be less constrained by central government, and also more accountable to local people."

That is the first point that I shall address tonight. The manifesto continued:

    "Although crude and universal council tax capping should go, we will retain reserve powers to control excessive council tax rises."

I will address that point second. The manifesto also stated:

    "Labour is committed to a fair distribution of government grant."

I will conclude briefly on that point.

On the first point about local democracy and accountability, there is a strong argument, put ably by the Labour party in last year's debate:

in redetermining the budget at the capping level--

    "The people want the opportunity to fund their schools and their social services properly, but they know that the Government will manipulate the figures to ensure that they cannot do that. That is not good enough."

The speaker, appropriately enough, was the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong), who is now the Minister of State, Departments of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The right hon. Member for Oxford, East strongly supported his colleague, and said:

    "As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) said, except in the most exceptional circumstances, it should be up to local people to make that decision, and councillors should be accountable through the local electoral process."

At the time, the right hon. Gentleman was shadow Financial Secretary to the Treasury and charged with showing that his party could be responsible with the public finances, which is a task that I believe he performed well then and which the Labour party seems to have performed well in the election campaign--perhaps too well on occasions for Liberal Democrats. When the right hon. Gentleman was pressed on that subject, later in the debate, he said:

    "we intend to review the system for local government support . . . to enable local democratic preferences properly to be expressed and reflected in local budgets, so that local people have the say in determining the level of resources for local services, which are there to meet local needs."--[Official Report, 22 May 1996; Vol. 278, c. 359-73.]

I could not have put it better myself.

The fly in the ointment last year was that the above-cap budget was not fully supported by the local Conservative group so it could have been argued that, had there been county council elections, the people would have swept to power a pro-capping local Conservative group.

However, that argument was tested this year, and not only did the Conservative group support the budget--indeed, with the Labour group, the Conservatives actually made the above-cap budget--but the council has just been completely re-elected on a huge turnout, and the new council, meeting after that election, unanimously supported that budget.

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The Labour party scored well in those elections, and its election platform, as stated in its local manifesto, was:

Liberal Democrats support those sentiments. The manifesto continued:

    "We deplore the years of successive cuts which Tory Governments have imposed on Oxfordshire services. We welcome the reversal of that trend which will follow the election of a Labour Government, as part of a new constitutional settlement which will change the relationship between local communities, their public services and their elected representatives."

It is just possible that Oxfordshire county council's Labour group, in its reforming zeal, may be slightly ahead of the Government, but I believe that the redetermination decision will present the Government--a Government who hit the ground running, and may merely have stumbled over designating our budget for capping--with the opportunity to pick themselves up and sprint forward towards the land of local democracy and accountability, and towards that new constitutional settlement.

Those may be grand words--

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