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The President of the Council was asked--

Legislation Timetables

46. Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South): If she will make a statement on the use of timetables for legislation in the House this Session. [114057]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): This Session there have been only two programme motions, one for the Northern Ireland Bill and one for the Financial Services and Markets Bill, both in February.

Mr. Griffiths: Can the Leader of the House confirm that on six occasions since January, the House has met to consider serious legislation after 2 am? After three years, the Modernisation Committee has, sadly, failed to bring about the changes that are needed. Will she now act quickly to give the House a free vote to ensure that important items of legislation are debated not in the middle of the night but during the sober light of day?

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend is right to refer to the importance of the sober light of day. I cannot confirm his figures offhand, but the Modernisation Committee is reviewing progress on the timetabling of legislation,

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which was originally proposed by the Jopling Committee in previous Parliaments, but has been pursued in this one. It will report to the House.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Are not the Government's difficulties in getting their programme through the House entirely of their own making? Is not the House presented with too many ill-considered and ill-drafted Bills? Does the Leader of the House recognise that if she wants to salvage her legislative programme, she must abandon some Bills, beginning with the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill?

Mrs. Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong; there is no substance to his point. Our programme for this Session is more than paralleled by those of previous Sessions at the same stage of a Parliament. In the previous Parliament, at the equivalent stage, programme motions were used, and we have had more time for discussing legislation rather than discussing when it should be discussed. We have given that more time, not less.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Is it not a fact that timetabling is good for Governments, good for Oppositions, and, more importantly, good for ensuring proper scrutiny of legislation? Is it not also a fact that it cannot be achieved by voluntary agreement, and must be put in Standing Orders if we are to ensure that timetabling is rigidly adhered to?

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend is correct. If such a step were to be taken, it would have to be through some such means. He is also right that timetabling is in the interests of the whole House, which is why successive Governments have proposed it. It is in the interests of a competent Opposition who want to discuss the merits of legislation, but that may be one reason why it has not been popular lately.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Is the Leader of the House aware of the widespread view across the House that the pace of modernisation is slackening and that the Modernisation Committee has a lot more work to do in the current Parliament, particularly on the handling of legislation? Will she confirm that the difference between an agreed programme motion and a timetable motion is critical? Will she insist that the Modernisation Committee and the House be given another opportunity to consider the precise procedure that would allow for more agreed programme motions and avoid the unfortunate antics in the middle of the night that we have suffered because of Conservative Members?

Mrs. Beckett: I do not accept that the Modernisation Committee's work has slowed. Several important experiments are under way, but I accept that it would be in the interests of the whole House, and of better, more effective management, if we spent our time on issues of importance rather than on discussing how we should discuss them. The Modernisation Committee will continue to give its attention to that point.

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47. Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): If she will make a statement on progress in the modernisation of the House. [114059]

48. Dr George Turner (North West Norfolk): What assessment she has made of the impact of recommendations of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on the operation of the House. [114060]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): The great majority of the Modernisation Committee's recommendations that were directed at Government have already been implemented. I hope that the House will agree that those changes have increased the House's ability to hold Government to account, increased opportunities for debate and enabled the working week to be better balanced between Westminster and constituency work.

Mr. MacShane: I thank my hon. Friend. Does he agree that now that "News at Ten" has been abolished, the 19th century habit of endless votes after 10 pm could also go? Hon. Members could have a night's sleep and debate matters during the day.

Will my hon. Friend also consider modernising the facilities for our friends, the gentlemen and ladies of the press? It may be an axiom of political journalism that the nicer we are to the journalists, the nastier they are to us. In the spirit, however, of kissing the hand that slaps us, and as their working conditions are worse than those of battery hens, might it not be that if we improved those conditions, the journalists would stop writing like battery hens about us?

Mr. Tipping: My hon. Friend can consider the matter from both sides of the fence in his professional life. I know that he is a specialist in nastiness, both in the press and, occasionally, in the House. However, he is right; we need to respond to the needs of people who work in the House. I am delighted that members of the Lobby are allowed to have tape recorders in the Press Gallery and that the Administration Committee has allowed filming in Members' offices as a result of representations.

Dr. Turner: Does my hon. Friend agree that the extra debating time available in Westminster Hall has meant that, for the first time in many years, there have been significant opportunities to debate Select Committee reports? Does he also agree that we need to enhance further the role of Select Committees, and that careful consideration should be given to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Liaison?

Mr. Tipping: My hon. Friend has used the facilities of Westminster Hall assiduously to advance the cause of his constituency. As he points out, 150 extra Back-Bench debates are possible because of Westminster Hall. It is now possible to discuss an extra 18 Select Committee reports. I am sure that he realises that the Liaison

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Committee report has only just been received, but the Government will consider it carefully and report according to normal practice.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): May I urge the Minister to encourage the Modernisation Committee to consider the timetabling of oral questions? Seven o'clock has been suggested, but in this day and age there is no reason why the time could not be extended until the end of the parliamentary day. Furthermore, we could shorten the cut-off time for the tabling of questions.

Mr. Tipping: I made it clear in my earlier answer that such matters are not set in stone. The Select Committee on Procedure examined that point in 1991 and in 1993. Given the advance of technology, it may be possible to change the cut-off time. If hon. Members make representations on the matter, they will be considered.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): In the context of the modernisation of the House, will the Minister examine the Whip system, as currently used by the Government, to consider whether it contributes to control freakery, to too much centralisation in No. 10 Downing street and to the emasculation of the British Parliament?

Mr. Tipping: I am sure that, given the hon. Gentleman's experience in the previous Parliament, he knows all that there is to know about the benefits and disbenefits of the Whip system.

Information Technology

49. Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): What plans she has to increase the use of information and communication technology in the pre-legislation scrutiny of Bills by the House. [114061]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): It is up to the Committee scrutinising draft legislation to decide how best to use information and communication technology in its work. However, I am sure that hon. Members would be interested in any suggestions from my hon. Friend.

Ms Moran: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he seriously consider the opportunities offered by e-mail, such as allowing evidence to be taken from a wide range of interests during pre-legislative scrutiny? That would more fully inform our legislative process by obtaining advice from wider groups of people in the community. Would that not enhance pre-legislative scrutiny and inform our policy processes?

Mr. Tipping: I shall follow carefully the experiment on internet use being undertaken by the all-party group on domestic violence, chaired by my hon. Friend. Some Committees use video technology and video conferencing at present; and the internet is used fairly widely. Those are matters for the Committees. Given the advance of technology, she is right that such developments will continue and increase.

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