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Mr. Darvill: My hon. Friend raises an important point, and the procedures are evolving. If hon. Members do not want the system to work, they can stop it. If so, the trial will not have worked, and it will be for us to come back and consider the matter. I hope that Members will not take those measures to thwart the will of the House, and that the real benefits that can be obtained from this experiment will be delivered.

Mr. Stunell: Could I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that the provision to object relates only to Government-proposed business and would not apply to Select Committee reports, meaning that the intervention by the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) was unfortunately mistaken?

Mr. Darvill: I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that point, and I hope that the House supports the measures tonight.

9.33 pm

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): I am somewhat reluctantly prepared to give this proposal a cautious welcome. One of the reasons for that is that it appears that, by and large, legislation will stay in the Chamber. I am cautious because of a number of proposals in the report, including that we should have a semi-circular arrangement. I thought that we had the perfectly sound principle of cross-Bench seating to allow those who wished to sit on the fence to sit squarely on it. I suppose that the Government, with their majority, will ram this through the House--as they have done with so many things--and we will wind up with that arrangement.

When matters are brought to the House, I often wonder what the real intentions of the Government are. I have been here for a number of years, and I have never yet

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seen a Government making changes to the procedures to be helpful to the Opposition or to Back Benchers. I do not think that that is the intention in this case, either.

I am somewhat curious about the type of debate that we may have. Some of us will want to probe, to ask questions and to be more constructive than is sometimes the case across this Chamber, but others will be doing a publicity job for their own area to boost their standing with their constituents. We all understand that that will go on; the question is how on earth we are to keep it under control.

Guillotine motions have been an increasing feature of life in recent years. Does the move to Westminster Hall mean that there will be fewer of those and that there will be more public debate in the main Chamber, allowing all hon. Members to air their concerns, or will all such business move too, giving us an opportunity to speak there that has been denied us here?

The Leader of the House said that she thought that there would be better scrutiny of legislation and of Government. How are the Government to be called to account in the Committee? Will those who take part in the debates be able to send for papers and persons, as in Select Committees?

Mrs. Beckett: I think that there has been a slight misunderstanding, as I did not suggest that the new Committee would provide greater opportunity for scrutiny of legislation as such. I spoke merely of enhancing parliamentary scrutiny as a whole, in that there will be opportunities for hon. Members to hold Ministers to account in debate.

Mr. Ross: I am grateful for that explanation, because it means that whenever we do not get an answer in Westminster Hall, we can bring the matter back here and put pressure on the Government by asking more questions.

The Government clearly believe that the change will not be as popular as the trailers have suggested. The fact that a quorum of three is deemed sufficient says a lot about the importance that we are prepared to attach to the new institution.

I know, and all but the most recent Members should know, that Governments hate debate, as it is very dangerous for them; that is why they always try to restrict it. They have a problem with legislation because they cannot retreat; they have to press on, and the longer the debate goes on, the more likely it is that weaknesses and imperfections will be exposed. We saw the result of that only last week.

We should always look for a longer time scale in legislation. I would much prefer to be in this Chamber. I would like the general public to have time to examine legislation as it goes through the House on a much longer time scale. Time is the vital consideration for the House; it is the enemy of Government, who know that Back Benchers will make use of it. The restriction of time is the weapon that Governments use to get their way before people have properly thought through what they are doing. We should consider how on earth we can extend the opportunities for debate.

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The proposal has some advantages for minor parties and for those who want to raise issues that may be minor in the national context but are of local or regional importance. Northern Ireland Members will be glad of the opportunity to have more Northern Ireland business discussed in the precincts of the Palace of Westminster.

Unlike some Opposition Members, I welcome the proposal to move the Wednesday morning debates to Westminster Hall. The loss of the chance for the public to see this place on a Wednesday morning has been a loss to the community at large, and I hope that the morning will be free again, because the more the general public can come here, the better for democracy.

I regret the fact that we do not have the late-night debates that we used to have. That is a great loss to the community as a whole.

9.39 pm

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): I am pleased to have had the privilege of being a member of the Modernisation Committee. That is not because the word "modernisation" makes me think, "Oh, great, we can change everything tomorrow", nor is it because--as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) did not suggest--I am the sort of Member who thinks, "Modernisation? Oh dear. What can I do to prevent any change in what happens in the House?" I believe strongly that it is good for every institution, whether a family, big business or Parliament, to consider how it is fulfilling its role and how it wants to change. I also know from experience that nothing focuses the mind more than changing the furniture, moving to a different room, changing the bedroom that a child sleeps in or changing the room that someone uses as an office. That is why this has been a constructive and interesting debate.

Using the same analogy, the usual excuse given for not changing something is cost. There is money in future budgets for upgrading the Grand Committee Room in Westminster Hall. If the House accepts the proposals before us today, I would be delighted to bring that money forward so that Westminster Hall, which is at the historical heart of this parliamentary building, can be made into a room of which we can be really proud. Some of us had the privilege of seeing it laid out as it would be, and we could also imagine the enhanced lift for the disabled--the current method of getting disabled people up to those rooms is not very dignified. The costs would be minimal. We are spending £250 million on Portcullis house and we are talking about much less than £1 million for a development that would enhance the Houses of Parliament as a whole.

I agree with those hon. Members who have said that what happens in this Chamber is of paramount importance. These proposals can only enhance the Chamber. I agree with the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) who believes--as you do, Madam Speaker--that ministerial statements should be made to the House and not on Radio 4. These proposals will leave the Chamber free for Ministers to make their statements--[Interruption.] I agree with Opposition Members, who are laughing, that that is the correct approach.

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Attendance in the Chamber has been mentioned, but it falls when the Chamber is abused. I find all-night sittings silly, time wasting and bad for the brain. They do nothing to enhance the reputation of the Chamber and a lot of silliness is often spoken during them.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I hope that my hon. Friend will not think that I am being unkind if I say that a lot of silliness is often spoken earlier in the day in the Chamber.

Helen Jackson: A lot of silliness is spoken in many parts of this building all through the day.

I strongly support the early, radical recommendation of the Modernisation Committee that the majority of Bills should be timetabled. I refer hon. Members back to last week, when we talked all night on an issue that aroused strong feelings on all sides. Hardly anyone was listening, and the media were not interested. When the debate was rescheduled in prime time on a timetable motion, good points were made by hon. Members of all parties. It was an excellent debate and, as it happened, the Government won the vote. People were able to listen to the arguments, and the time chosen was appropriate for discussion of an issue that interested everyone in the House. There was no question of poor attendance last Thursday.

It is within our power to examine the way in which we discuss legislation and to ensure that this Chamber is used to discuss key issues in which everyone is interested. The new Chamber in Westminster Hall will release time in which this Chamber can be used better.

I do not want to go over what has been said about the benefits to be gained from the proposals for Westminster Hall. From my time on the former Select Committee on the Environment, I know that discussion of Select Committee reports in this Chamber either happens too late, when the issue concerned has gone off the boil, or does not happen at all.

The extra time that will be allowed for private Members' business means that the expertise that Back Benchers bring from their former professions and lives will be used more effectively. Also, although it may be heresy to some people, I think that it might be appropriate to move the Wednesday morning sittings to Westminster Hall as a pilot experiment. Wednesday is the most popular day for the public to come to Parliament, as Prime Minister's Questions are held on that day. At present there is no opportunity for people to see the Chamber in the morning.

I agree with what has been said about debates on foreign affairs and estimates. However, I agree with paragraph 17 of the report's board of management memorandum, which expresses the hope that use of the second Chamber for Government business will not be ruled out. I shall be interested in whether discussion of some delegated legislation may be more suitably allocated to Westminster Hall.

In addition, some of the early discussions of specialist matters arising from Green Papers may give rise to debates that are wider and better thought out than is possible here, where the lack of available time means that they are squeezed for space. I also want to add my voice to those hon. Members who have endorsed the idea that the Westminster Hall Chamber will be distinctly different. The format for debates will be different, and I welcome that.

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Those hon. Members who are worried about whether the new forum will take off are right to ask whether the media will be interested. In the previous Parliament, I spent a lot of time on matters to do with water and the environment. The members of the media interested in those subjects tended to be the environmental correspondents and the specialist media, who did not enjoy the luxury of the facilities extended to the Lobby correspondents.

That may not be popular with the Lobby correspondents, who like to feel that Parliament is about gossip, cut and thrust, and Prime Minister's Question Time--but the specialist media should be given enhanced facilities in the House, and this is an opportunity to provide them. This proposal could be good for Parliament, helping to persuade the public that we are not simply concerned with Prime Minister's Question Time, while the Chamber is otherwise empty. It should show that we are concerned to debate the key issues of the day, that all arguments are heard and that we are not just party hacks. It should show that whatever party we belong to, we are interested in raising arguments, listening to each other and discussing matters.

I hope that Westminster Hall will provide a fresh and responsible approach. The reform is cost effective, brilliantly using a part of the House that embodies the heart of the old parliamentary buildings.


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