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9.51 pm

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): I listened to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) with increasing incredulity. She said that decamping the House of Commons--not a Committee--on certain days to a poky room above the cafeteria off Westminster Hall would somehow enhance the status of the Chamber. Even if that poky room has a £1 million refurbishment, decamping to it will not enhance the status of the House of Commons. I oppose the report because I believe that it will, yet again, diminish the status of the House and of Madam Speaker. There is no need for it.

My incredulity increased when the hon. Lady suggested that if a parallel Chamber met elsewhere, there would somehow be time for Ministers to make statements to the House. Ha! That beggars belief. The diminution of the status of this House has come not from evolutionary change but, over the past two years, from revolutionary change. Prime Minister's Question Time has been arbitrarily changed, without consultation with Madam Speaker. The other place is being destroyed although we have been given no model with which to replace it. Again and again, statements are made outside the House. Today's was another example. All that diminishes the status of this place.

I do not believe that there is any need for a parallel Chamber to debate the issues mentioned. Time is available in this House if we wish to use it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has pointed out that we are rising a day early for the Whitsun recess. There was an attempt to give us an extra week's holiday before the Easter recess, and we took three days of it. Last summer, the recess was one of the longest in history. There is time to debate issues if the House wants to do so.

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Fridays have also been reduced and are used purely for private Members' business. If there is an overwhelming demand for Adjournment debates, let hon. Members slot in 10 of them on a Friday. At half an hour each, we could easily do so.

Mrs. Beckett: I have forborne to correct the many Conservative Members who have referred to the changes on Fridays. However, I recall that those changes resulted from the Jopling report, under the previous Government. They were nothing to do with the present Government.

Mr. Maclean: I accept that those changes were consequences of the Jopling report, but not everything in that report was to the benefit of the House. If there is a demand for more Adjournment debates, let them be held on a Friday, or let them continue to be held in the Chamber on a Wednesday morning. Let us not detract even further from the status of the House.

I will share a little anecdote with the House, which I think is instructive. When I was made an Environment Minister in 1992, we held the presidency of the European Union. We held an informal ministerial meeting here. We arranged a nice hotel to meet all the Ministers, which was the normal practice. I was waiting on the steps to greet the German Minister--one of the most important--who turned up in the British Government ministerial Rover Sterling, which we had allocated to him. The hotel flunkies jumped to help him with his bags. At that moment, a fleet of Daimlers rolled up. The hotel flunkies dropped the German Minister's bags, rushed to the Daimlers and treated the occupants like royalty. Of course, they were the civil servants from the Commission, who had decided to hire their own fleet. The point is this--as someone in the hotel said when we protested about the treatment of the German Minister--"If you drive around like royalty, you'll be treated like royalty."

You are the Speaker of this House of Commons, Madam Speaker. If we move to a Committee room at the other side of Westminster Hall not to hold a Committee there but to hold what is effectively a sitting of the House of Commons, and it is chaired not by Madam Speaker but by a Deputy Speaker and by other Assistant Speakers, we will again be diminishing the status of the Chamber.

Dr. Starkey: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the logic of his statement is that when Madam Speaker is, regrettably, unable to be in charge of the Chamber and one of her deputies is substituting, the status of this Chamber is somehow diminished?

Mr. Maclean: That was not my point at all. This is the Chamber--[Interruption.] My point is that if the House of Commons is no longer meeting in this Chamber, which is adequate to hold most of the Members of the House, but decides to move to a Committee Room above the cafeteria on the other side of Westminster Hall, where Madam Speaker will never be in the Chair--at best it will

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be a Deputy Speaker--that will be perceived by the media and others as a much lesser form of House of Commons, as indeed it will be because, at most, 51 Members--

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: I am a little concerned about my right hon. Friend's derogatory remarks because I might be one of those hon. Members in the Chair.

Mr. Maclean: My hon. Friend has many talents and qualities, but he is not the Speaker of the House of Commons. Our debates in this Chamber can be presided over by the Speaker; our debates in the Room above the cafe will be presided over by, at most, a Deputy Speaker. That in itself is another small but significant diminution in the status of this Chamber.

Comments have been made about the furniture. Listening to some hon. Ladies on the Labour Benches telling us that the furniture, the design of the room and the colours are important, I thought that we were about to have another lecture on interior decorating and design.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made an excellent speech. She proved that there can be complete agreement across the Floor of this House. I agree with everything that the hon. Lady said, both in her speech and in her interventions. We did not need to sit in some cosy hemicycle to come to that agreement. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) talked about a semi-circle, but it is a hemicycle and there is a big difference, I understand.

There is no need for this proposal because there is ample time if we want it. We must puncture a few myths. Hon. Members say that there is great demand for Select Committee reports to be debated. Let us be honest. Who are we kidding? The only demand comes from some of the members of the Select Committees, who want to take over another Chamber of the House to debate the same report that they have spent weeks discussing in the first place.

Select Committee reports are important, not because they will be debated three weeks, six weeks or six months later but because, on the day of publication--if they have not been leaked--the Committees can hold the Government to account. At that stage, they can cause the Government some hurt or injury, put them on the back foot and make them defend themselves. That is when Select Committee reports matter, not when they are debated in the room above the cafe six months later.

It is clear from what Labour Members said that they regard endless Adjournment debates as a major role for the new Chamber. Let us be honest again: Adjournment debates do not hold the Government to account. No Minister is terrified of them. I cannot recall ever swotting up for days worrying about an Adjournment debate; no one in this Government sweats about them either. Adjournment debates are loved by all Members, and we put in for them for one good reason: they are another justification for press releases because we can say that we raised an issue on the Floor of the House of Commons and give out a copy of our very important speeches to an almost packed House.

Let us be honest. Our press releases are based on our questions and speeches. As we cannot get into many of the important debates, Adjournment debates are another legitimate avenue. If hon. Members want endless Adjournment debates, I say once again and in conclusion,

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let them be held on Friday or Wednesday morning, but do not set up yet another Chamber that is supposed to be this House in miniature on the other side of Westminster Hall.

I am sorry, Madam Speaker: when I used the words "in conclusion", I told a slight untruth. My final point concerns the furniture. I notice--I think in schematic 5 of the hemicycle that we are urged to agree to tonight--that there is provision for a pulpit. We now know where the Prime Minister will sit.

10.1 pm

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East): I draw the attention of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) to paragraph 50. Should he venture into Westminster Hall, he will find that the Deputy Speaker and his colleagues have the power to discontinue a speech on the grounds of tedious repetition and irrelevance. Perhaps he should stay out altogether.

I have a few points, but I will not speak fully in favour of the report. This evening has been an example of how badly the House of Commons does these things. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) eloquently discussed the Procedure Committee's report on the consequences of devolution. At the same time, we had the Modernisation Committee's report on finding extra time above the police cafe in Westminster Hall. It would have made more sense if both Committees had met so that the Procedure Committee could have given its views on the consequences of devolution and the Modernisation Committee its views on finding more time for debate. A joint report could have been produced for the House, rather than discussing the Modernisation Committee report--I call it the Tinkering Committee--and then discussing the Procedure Committee report. That is daft.

I do not like members of the Modernisation Committee who wax lyrical with hyperbole and revolutionary fervour about what is nothing more than tinkering. I do not like many aspects of the proposals. I do not know how to overcome it but I do not like the fact that only 51 Members can get into the Room. What happens if 53 want to come? Will the Westminster Hall sittings be stopped and brought back to the main Chamber? The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) probably has at least 50 acquaintances, if not friends, whom he could persuade to fill that Chamber every now and then to avoid debate. The modernisation debate is not served by hyperbole and revolutionary fervour when we are talking only of a couple more hours of debate elsewhere.

I fundamentally disagree with the report about the House becoming a museum again on Wednesdays. Like other hon. Members, I take tours round, but above all, this must be a working Chamber. Its work must be paramount. I am disappointed that Wednesday mornings are excluded. When the private Members' Bill process is reformed, I should like such proceedings to be held on Wednesdays so that some of my northern comrades and Opposition colleagues could pop along and see what the process is all about. I come into the House every Friday, as do some other Members.

The proposals are not revolutionary. It is a shame that the Procedure Committee and the Modernisation Committee did not hold a joint meeting. We need to address the issue of furniture. I am not a hemispheric--

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[Interruption.] I am hemispheric, but I am not a hemispheric. The notion that, if we arrange the furniture, the politics will change--that the adversarial will go and consensus will arrive--is absolute nonsense. Hon. Members should consider the Westminster city council chamber or the Harrow council chamber. I was a member of Harrow council and I made pretty sure that there was no such thing as consensus, unless, as leader of the Labour group, the consensus was what the Labour group said it should be. In that sense, I accept consensus.

Let us not run a mile. The ideas are fine. The idea that there should be another Chamber in order that we can have more discussion is fine. If the amendments had been tabled by a Member whom I preferred, I might have supported them; I cannot, in all conscience, go into the Lobby to support an amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. However, as a modernising party or a modernising Chamber, we should not run away with the notion that the proposals are revolutionary. For God's sake, will the Modernisation Committee start being a modernising Committee and stop being a tinkering Committee that goes along at a snail's pace? The Committee is not even Fabian; it goes along at a snail's pace--at a dead snail's pace. Let us modernise properly, but scrap the hyperbole.

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