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Modernisation of the House

32. Sir Sydney Chapman: To ask the President of the Council what plans she has to implement the recommendations contained in the first report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons (HC190, Session 1997-98). [12027]

Mrs. Ann Taylor: The Committee reported on 23 July, and a debate on its conclusions is to be held in the near future.

Sir Sydney Chapman: Given that the Government are committed, as a result of the Labour party manifesto, to making Parliament more relevant and more effective--that was the reason for establishing the Modernisation Committee--does the right hon. Lady not think, on reflection, that the Government's actions since 1 May have had the opposite effect, and indeed diminished Parliament? She must recall that her Government introduced a guillotine before the Second Reading debate on a Bill, changed the format of Prime Minister's Question Time without any consultation with the House, and spin-doctored important statements to the media ahead, and instead, of giving them in the Chamber. On reflection, does the right hon. Lady not think that those issues are more important than the very welcome introduction of a new and easier-to-read daily agenda?

Mrs. Taylor: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the new and easier-to-read daily agenda. I reject his basic presumption that we have not introduced useful changes. Hon. Members worked extremely hard between the election and the summer recess to pass a record number of pieces of legislation. I think that we are finding ways for hon. Members to make extremely important and useful contributions both to debates and in Select Committees.

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Mr. Skinner: Is it not a bit rich for Tory Members to complain about not having sufficient time to consider legislation and about the Government's introduction of guillotines when the House of Commons would have risen at about 7.30 pm one night last week if a succession of Labour Members had not kept the debate going until its usual 10 pm completion? Last night, that great Opposition--as they like to call themselves--allowed the House to rise at 8 o'clock. I have news for them: in the old days, we used to sit all night at least once every week--and sometimes we would have two or three all-night sittings a week. I cannot stomach the idea that Tory Members are so anxious to get away from this place that they cannot stay the course. In the old days, Members of Parliament used to be here for many more days. There is a bit of hypocrisy.

Mrs. Taylor: My hon. Friend is not showing his characteristic generosity to Opposition Members. He should understand that they have had other things on their minds in recent weeks.

Thursday Sittings

33. Mr. Bennett: If she will introduce proposals to start sittings at 2 pm on Thursdays. [12028]

Mrs. Ann Taylor: I have no plans to do so at present, but the Modernisation Committee will consider the matter with other suggestions when it examines the parliamentary calendar. My hon. Friend has written to the Committee about the proposal and we shall look at it.

Mr. Bennett: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does she accept that one of the great successes of the Jopling Committee--I am speaking as one of the few remaining Members of Parliament who served on it--was to convince the House to be flexible with its sitting hours? If the Opposition are so keen to scrutinise constitutional matters on the Floor of the House, will my right hon. Friend give some thought to the possibility of the House sitting on Tuesday and Thursday mornings? Does she accept that, if we sat half an hour earlier on a Thursday, we could rise half an hour earlier? It would make a tremendous difference if those who must travel back to the north of England, Scotland and Wales could leave at 6.30 rather than 7 pm and thus avoid the difficult scramble to get trains and planes.

Mrs. Taylor: My hon. Friend makes a legitimate point, although I am not sure that starting earlier on Thursday would guarantee an earlier finish. That point can be examined by the Modernisation Committee, as can my hon. Friend's very interesting idea that the House could sit in Committee on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Those ideas are worth further investigation.

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Regional Affairs

34. Mr. Bill O'Brien: If she will move to provide for an additional Sub-Committee of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee to consider regional affairs; and if she will make a statement. [12029]

Mrs. Ann Taylor: The Select Committee has already been given the power to appoint two Sub-Committees. It is up to the Committee to decide how to choose inquiries within its terms of reference.

Mr. O'Brien: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response, and I congratulate her on the way in which the Select Committees were established so soon after the general election. I raise the issue of a Sub-Committee for the regions because much importance is attached to the development of the regions. I believe that we should reach a statutory agreement on the way that we approach the regions question. We should be able to take specific evidence to a Sub-Committee regarding the Government's progress in implementing and introducing regional agencies. Against that background, I ask my colleague to consider the matter, which is important to people in the regions.

Mrs. Taylor: My hon. Friend is aware that the Committee has two Sub-Committees, because it was formed by the merger of two previous Select Committees. I do not deny what he says about the importance of the regions, and there will be legislation on the topic later in this Session. However, I remind him--he is a member of the Transport Sub-Committee--that either of the Sub-Committees or the Committee itself could have an inquiry into any aspect of regional development that was relevant to the policy of that Department, so the Committee is not excluded from the kind of investigation that he thinks may be necessary.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Will the right hon. Lady look seriously at the way in which we can hold regional offices of Government to account? The Government have a proposal for regional government in London, to take place from 2000, which is very welcome, but not as yet in any other regions of England. Civil servants have no direct accountability to anybody, although across all Departments they wield great power. Will the right hon. Lady allow time for thinking through the implications of the question asked by the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), as that would be widely welcomed by English Members?

Mrs. Taylor: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and I would not close my mind to considering alternative ways of making people accountable. However, I emphasise again that the Select Committee in question could examine that as a topic and could make recommendations if it considered that appropriate.

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UN Observers (Iraq)

3.31 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Madam Speaker, you gave me permission to raise under Standing Order No. 24 the dangerous situation in Iraq. This is not a kite-flying statement, but a genuine request to you to consider whether or not the House of Commons should have its say before any blood is spilt, rather than react to horror. I acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), who has responsibility for the middle east.

I must persuade you of three things: that the matter is definite, urgent and important. It is definite in that Iraq has refused American observers and investigators. Iraq has threatened to shoot down surveillance aircraft. There are moves in Washington to take unilateral action, and not only the extreme views of Newt Gingrich but those of others make this a dangerous cocktail.

I argue that the matter is urgent in that, by the time the House of Commons meets tomorrow, this country could be supporting military action, if not participating in it. In the public print, we read that 10 Downing street staff have agreed British support with their White House equivalents. This is still a parliamentary democracy, not a presidential country, and the House of Commons ought to be consulted before one British soldier, sailor or airman is committed to armed conflict.

The matter is important because Saddam Hussein may not be averse to military action. In 1993, like every other visitor to Baghdad, I was taken on the first morning there to the Amariya--the shelter where hundreds of women and children were charred and scorched to death by a cruise missile. That is used by the regime--possibly understandably so, but nevertheless used--to support its own view of the world.

When one sees, in the children's hospital in Baghdad, hundreds of infants--I exaggerate not--expiring in one's presence as a result of sanctions, it leads one to think that at least one should talk to the Iraqis about the imposition of sanctions. If not to the Iraqis, one should certainly talk to the French, the Russians and the Chinese, as well as the Arab League. Military action could have reverberations, and the Government ought to hear what the Commons thinks--

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