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Mr. Gill: I too welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. It cannot possibly be right to vote on an issue up to a week after the debate. In the intervening time the Whips will work on hon. Members of their respective parties, the press will express their views on the rights

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and wrongs of the decision that we are about to make, and our constituents may also have something to say. That smacks of double jeopardy.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) rose--

Mrs. Beckett: I shall give way for the last time, to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Pike: Is it not important to remember that on two important occasions--the Budget and the Queen's Speech--we always vote at the end of five days' debate? We do not vote on each specific issue on the day that it is debated.

Mrs. Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point, but I do not propose to dwell on it.

The proposal to programme more legislation is not new. Nor is it one put forward only by Labour Members or uniquely by the Government as a means of oppressing the Opposition. It is put forward frequently by many who comment on our affairs, including recently the Norton report, and a report from the Hansard Society.

For myself, I have long opposed--and I do not think that I have ever practised--the tactics of simply wasting time. Although my years in the House have inured me personally to the hours that we keep, I have long been conscious that they often produce bewilderment rather than admiration among the public, and that they never contribute to our effectiveness as a legislature. I fear that people only think that they are more eloquent at 2 o'clock in the morning.

It is often said that the chief weapon of the Opposition is time, and that is held to mean only delay, but I believe that the chief weapon of the Opposition--and Labour has had more years of experience of it--is the constructive use of time. Their strength or their weakness is the strength or weakness of their argument, not how long it takes to put it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made the point that members of the Select Committee were very aware that in recommending that how time is used be primarily in the hands of the Opposition and of Back Benchers, they were creating a new and, they believed, a more potent weapon. However, what they were certainly doing, and what the House will do if it carries the motions tonight, is to place our proceedings on a clearer, firmer and more effective basis. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said quite correctly that we have not discussed in detail, although we have touched on them, the parliamentary calendar, the parliamentary year and the parliamentary day. All those issues are more than worthy of fresh consideration and debate, but the key to them all is the decision that we take tonight.

7.5 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I, too, welcome you to the chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am a new member of the Modernisation Committee and I begin by repeating that any proposal it makes should seek to strengthen the House and its Members in order to

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enable them to hold the Government of the day to account, yet the proposals on the Order Paper tonight would not strengthen Parliament--they would weaken it. They would give the Government more power to get their business through more quickly. I shall oppose both motions tonight because they fail that crucial test.

By definition, the word "modernisation" implies change for the good. It is used in a parliamentary context to raise the perceptions of those with conservative views who would change nothing at all and those who seek to break the mould. I do not hold that view, but I believe that the litmus test that I have described is important. I am not opposed to change, but I believe that it should be in the interests of the democratic process rather than to prioritise what is convenient and expedient for individual hon. Members.

The debate led by the Modernisation Committee has been strongly influenced by the intake of hon. Members in 1997, many of whom did not expect to be elected and were unprepared for the terms and conditions of the job that they were elected to fulfil. The hon. Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson) explained clearly that this is a job with terms and conditions and that individual hon. Members are responsible to those who elect us.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): First, I congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I have been here for 13 years and I have never found the terms and conditions of the House acceptable. I am a normal human being and I believe that I can do my job in the House effectively during more reasonable hours. Does the hon. Lady believe that the proposals would lead to fewer hours? They would not; they would organise the hours in a different way.

Mrs. Browning: If the proposal before the House tonight had been that business should be conducted in more reasonable hours, it would have been reasonable to expect the Modernisation Committee to have at least considered the options of conducting more business during daylight hours rather than bringing before the House one proposal that clearly does not have cross- party agreement.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): Would the hon. Lady also support moves to start the day before 2.30 pm on the days when we currently do that?

Mrs. Browning: I would consider it and that is why I am astonished that it was not considered by the Modernisation Committee. The Government have been judge, they have been jury, they have been cunning old fury and they have not given the House reasonable options. They have put a proposal on the table and asked us to take it or leave it.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): Is the hon. Lady not aware that the main reason that the Modernisation Committee has not made those proposals is that they were consistently, regularly and routinely blocked by the Conservative Members on that Committee? That is why the House does not have those proposals before it.

Mrs. Browning: It is nice to hear that part of the Government coalition rowing in. This is not a party

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political matter, but one for Parliament and individual Members. Our need for full debate and proper consideration of proposals made it incumbent on the Modernisation Committee to put forward more than one proposal, a point clearly made in the minority report produced by Conservative Members. The proposals before us did not carry the full support of the Committee, and it would have been helpful if, instead of offering us a curtailed business motion, the Government had given us a greater chance to discuss other options for improving the conduct of our business.

Given the views of many new Members who entered the House in 1997, it is unsurprising that the Committee's emphasis has been on the hours of work, late nights, facilities for Members and their families, and other such extramural issues as the right to breast feed in Committees. Those issues have doubtless influenced debate, but have coincided with a Government desire, for quite different reasons, to reduce opportunities for parliamentary debate, scrutiny and questions.

New Labour Members are encouraged to spend time in their constituencies, even while the House is sitting. The Prime Minister favours the House with his presence only once a week, apart from the rare statement. Cabinet Ministers prefer photocalls to statements that can be questioned and debated on the Floor of the House. The move to change the way in which the House conducts Government business for the convenience of Members could not be better timed as far as the Government are concerned.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Congratulations on your appointment, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Does the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) accept that open-ended debate is often not an effective way of holding the Government to account? Does she accept that the Opposition are being given greater power than before to decide the timing of contentious debates so that they might be available to the media and open to public scrutiny?

Mrs. Browning: I do not agree. I shall come later to substantive parts of the motion, but first I shall discuss why the proposals before us and their timing suit the Government so well. Their agenda is to sideline the House and to prevent Members and the Opposition as a whole from challenging the Government. In March 1998, the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in a speech in Germany, declared:

The right hon. Gentleman and some colleagues prefer direct representation to representation through democratically elected Members, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said. For new Labour, all-embracing direct contact with lobby groups, focus groups and other organisations is preferable to being accountable to those who were elected through the ballot box to represent the people in this Chamber.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Not at all.

Mrs. Browning: Given that sedentary intervention, I hope that the House may be favoured with a visit by

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the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who might explain why what he said should have been put on the public record by a member of the Cabinet.

In a recent publication by the Hansard Society, Greg Power wrote:

It will not have gone without notice that even tonight's earlier debates were administered by the Labour party Whips while Conservative Members were allowed a free vote, with Tellers provided from outside the Front- Bench team.

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