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4.17 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I support the general remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). Even at this late stage, I appeal to the Leader of the House to fulfil that role, as she well can and as she frequently has, and to serve the House by withdrawing the motion and allowing us to debate the general principles behind a number of very different issues.

It is possible that some Opposition Members are in favour of some of the Government's propositions and violently opposed to others. I hope that this will be a parliamentary occasion on which hon. Members on both sides will examine each proposal on its individual merits and decide whether it will advance the interests of Parliament to pass the motion.

The only sensible, logical and fair way of doing that is for the Leader of the House to allow us to have a general debate this afternoon on the principles proposed. After all, we do not have the state opening of Parliament until 6 December and we need not prorogue until 4 or 5 December. We have ample time for each of the orders to be tabled separately and for the House to concentrate on it, debate it and pass it or reject it.

The Leader of the House would be serving the House and fulfilling her historic role if she listened to this plea for common sense and logic, as I hope she will.

4.19 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Sometimes in the House of Commons the language used seems to suggest that particular items of discussion are considered solely on a party basis. I therefore want to make my position clear. I have looked carefully at the wording of the motion and I am deeply disturbed that we should be proceeding with major changes, apparently on a timetabled motion. I am not quite clear why the Leader of the House has not chosen to introduce the business motion; presumably, she will comment at the end of the debate.

These are not small matters. They may be presented as a moving of the furniture and an alteration here and there. They may even be presented as modernisation, by those who basically do not approve of the close examination of legislation and somehow feel that whatever the Government say must automatically be right. Long acquaintance with Governments of all parties has taught me that Members are wise to examine carefully what is being presented to them--and not only in terms of whether it fits in with their individual ideas or with the ideas of their party, on which they accepted nomination. They should consider carefully whether what is being presented affects the interests of their constituents.

Timetable motions, however they are presented, reduce the time available to the House to debate major matters. It is not only a matter of convenience. Were I a cynic, I might say that the accident of the decision to have the debate today, when many Members might be expected to want to go elsewhere and to enjoy the no doubt abundant

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hospitality of well known embassies, might have an effect on the attendance within the Chamber. I am sure, however, that that is not the case.

I have opposed timetable motions under many Governments, not only the present Government. I feel strongly that the Back-Bench Member has only one real weapon, and that is careful scrutiny. Back Benchers can be bought off occasionally with patronage; they can be encouraged and frightened. Occasionally they get themselves into positions which some of us would feel are slightly uncomfortable in relation to their masters and mistresses. However, they have the power to question what lies behind particular pieces of legislation. They can examine the use of particular words--the semantics that present major changes as minor changes, and present essential alterations as though they were methods of making life convenient for individual Members.

I am delighted to know that the proposals are being presented so that I may know in future more securely what my day will be like. That will be a tremendous improvement on the past 35 years. But I did not think that I was coming to Parliament to have my day secured. I rather thought that I was coming to this place to examine in considerable detail laws that carry sanctions against people's lives.

There are parts of the reports that make it clear what we are supposed to be doing in the House. Parliamentary draftsmen have spelt out the difference between the wording of laws and the wording of information leaflets. They have made it clear why Members must accept the responsibility of dealing with complex legislation, which in its terms and in its English leads them to experience difficulty, and to require explanation.

I say sincerely that I shall accept some of the suggestions that will be discussed today, while others I find unacceptable. However, they are major changes, not small alterations. They will have an enormous impact, and every Government will benefit from them. In due course, every Front-Bench team will want to agree them, irrespective of its political power and irrespective of where it comes from, or what it presents itself to the electorate as representing. That should be a warning signal to individual Members, and make them ask why suddenly such matters can be dismissed so quickly. Is it because awkward questions may be asked?

I support the strange old-fashioned idea that a lot of us are elected to the House to ask awkward questions and to get some fairly straight answers. My experience is that those who seek to curtail debate--whatever their reasons and however they express them--should be distrusted, if only mildly. We should treat them with affectionate respect, but we should also listen carefully to what they say. That is not simply a question of saying, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts." Believe me, it is always wise for Back-Bench Members to beware of motions proposed by Front Benchers who argue that the proposals in the motion are for the convenience of Back Benchers.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You safeguard the interests of Back Benchers. Bearing in mind the opaque nature of the motion, would it have been appropriate for the Leader of the House, whose role is to represent the interests of all Members of the House, to have begun with an explanation of that motion? That would have made it clear where

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we stand. Alternatively, Sir, bearing in mind the fact that you announced that you intended to make a statement, would it be appropriate for you to say, on behalf of the House, how you believe that those important questions, which are about the fundamental nature of the House, should be dealt with? The decisions that we take today will be binding.

Mr. Speaker: The answer is no.

4.26 pm

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): I, too, oppose the motion. First, although it is deplorable for any debate to be curtailed, it is particularly deplorable and appalling for debate on a motion that will curtail our rights to be curtailed. Those important rights--rights of debate and of assent to legislation--are central to our work.

Secondly, the proposed changes are fundamental. In essence, they, and in particular the proposal to defer Divisions, will change the parliamentary week. They could turn us into a one-day-a-week Parliament.

Thirdly, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said, the changes will be convenient for Ministers of either political complexion, and may be convenient for some hon. Members, but they will be irreversible, and should therefore be debated at greater length.

If the motion is agreed to, we shall bury one of the principles of our democracy tonight. If we are to do that, we should at least do it with some thought, without curtailment and with a certain amount of dignity. I very much regret that a procedural change designed to stifle debate should itself be stifled by a guillotine motion. I join my hon. Friends in asking the Leader of the House: why the rush? There is no other urgent business on the Order Paper, and there is plenty of time before the end of the Session. Big issues are at stake on programming motions and deferring Divisions. If the Leader of the House is so keen to have a vote by the 10 pm deadline tonight, why do we not have a longer debate, and why does she not try out the proposals? We could defer the Division until tomorrow, which would allow us to debate the motion at greater length.

4.29 pm

Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South): I shall be brief. I share many of the concerns that have been expressed.

I have always supported the sensible programming of Bills, and although I have some concerns about the orders, Parliament should take that step. I have many more concerns about the proposal to defer voting.

In many ways, the proposals fundamentally alter my terms and conditions of employment. I was sent here to do a job, and it has been put to me that in many ways, the proposals will make my job easier. But I was not elected to have an easy job; I was elected to scrutinise legislation. When I ask the fundamental questions--whether the proposals will make the business of Government easier, and whether they will make it more difficult to scrutinise legislation--I have to answer yes to both. Therefore, it is imprudent of the Government--

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the

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hon. Gentleman, whose contribution the House is listening to with interest, but I hope that you have noticed that the hon. Member speaking is incorrectly recorded on the monitor as being the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe).

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