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Mr. Bercow: Is the meagre fare proposed by the Modernisation Committee any surprise, given that that Committee is chaired by a member of the Cabinet and contains no fewer than three parliamentary private secretaries to Ministers, who are, of course, members of the Government payroll vote? The fingerprints of the Government Whips Office are all over the Committee.
Mrs. Browning: I thank my hon. Friend for that and shall offer some suggestions later on how we might modernise in a way that pays respect to the democratic process by changing how the business of the House is conducted so that Parliament rather than the Executive gains strength. If laws and methods of scrutiny and debate are changed to meet the social needs of Members of Parliament, we will undermine the role of Members and neuter the activities of the official Opposition.
Mr. Winnick: Whether I am new or old Labour is a matter of interest to very few people, but does the hon. Lady accept that I always place parliamentary duties alongside constituency duties? When the House is sitting, I hope that I will always be in the House or in the Chamber. Does she also accept that during my years in the House I have always noted strident opposition to change? In 1966, by just one vote, the House was not televised, and it took years before it was. Thursday morning sittings were opposed by many Members but are now regarded as quite normal. [Hon. Members: "No, no."] That response merely strengthens my view that some people simply do not want to adapt the House of Commons to modern circumstances. It is essential that we should do so, because the House will die--or, at best, decline significantly--if we do not.
Mrs. Browning: I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is an assiduous contributor to the House's proceedings. I do not take issue with much of what he said, but would ask him to put the motions before us to the litmus test. We are not talking only about modernisation, although I agree that persuading people of change is always difficult. We are asking whether the proposals would strengthen the people who sit behind the Front Bench on both sides of the House. I do not believe that they would. Modernisation is an all-embracing generic term, and we
Mr. Redwood: I am very grateful. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Labour party were serious about making this place more relevant and interesting to the electors who sent us here and who pay our salaries, it would have allowed the House to sit during the fuel protest so that the Government could have stated their case and we could have cross-examined them? In addition, would they not reinstate Prime Minister's questions to at least twice a week? It provides the biggest box-office draw outside the House and inside it, but is the one thing that the Government want to cancel.
The first proposal before us is on the timetabling of all Government Bills. As the Leader of the House pointed out, by the end of the debate on the Queen's Speech, the official Opposition would have to guess how much time would be necessary for each Bill's consideration, but entirely without sight of a draft Bill.
Efficient drafting of legislation has not been one of this Administration's hallmarks. Earlier this year, the Government's flagship Utilities Bill was well into Committee when the Government finally acknowledged that it was flawed and abandoned half of it. Conversely, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, which remains in another place, has had 125 pages of amendments added to it. The Commons has not yet had a chance to consider those, and it is unlikely that we will be able to do so very fully.
If the Modernisation Committee had been serious about improving the workings of the House, it would have addressed the cause rather than the symptoms of why the House had been kept late to deal with a backlog of legislation. We clearly have such a backlog in spite of the fact that devolution was supposed to lighten the legislative load. The Committee is instead proposing that the Opposition should be bound, at an early stage, to the Government's agenda. That sounds cuddly and friendly, but it could clearly undermine an Opposition. If the Government have an agenda in a Queen's Speech, with a list of Bills that they believe are their priority and are right for the country, they should defend their view. They should not ask the Opposition to second-guess before we have had an opportunity to see how badly drafted some of that legislation is.
Mrs. Browning: Does the right hon. Lady accept that, as the legislation for a Session is listed as on a menu, and given our experience of the appalling drafting of many of the Government's flagship Bills in this Parliament, it is virtually impossible for the Opposition to negotiate a timetable motion for various stages of certain Bills?
Mrs. Browning: I hope that she will assure me that, to make the proposal more practical and to fulfil the outcome that she described, measures are in place to improve the drafting of Government legislation.
There is no suggestion that the Opposition would be bound in some way. The whole idea is to give not merely the official Opposition but representatives in the House the opportunity to express a view based on what they know in the early stages. That is one reason for making the process informal. As a Bill emerges, people sometimes realise that they have more concerns about it. Conversely, something that people thought might take a great deal of time might not turn out to be so weighty and would, therefore, require less. There is no suggestion that anyone should be bound in any way. The opportunity is merely being offered to the Opposition to contribute to how the weight of the parliamentary year should be distributed. I am never one for having meetings if they are not necessary. If the hon. Lady does not want to make her view known, that will be fine by me.
Mrs. Browning: We understand now why the Liberal Democrats were so keen on this proposal. If they are going to take an interest in Standing Committees, I hope that their attendance in those Committees will improve; it has been lamentable.
The minority report produced by Conservative Modernisation Committee members described the way in which Divisions are to be deferred as "a mass vote-in". The right hon. Lady described the procedure. Members will vote weekly on a Wednesday between 3.30 pm and 5 pm. I have huge concerns about that. I am amazed that she cannot understand the concerns of the House. The system would break so many principles--the right of a Member of Parliament to debate a matter and then vote on it, and also the way in which that vote is cast.
At the moment, when a Division is called, the cry goes out, "Clear the Lobbies." There is a good reason for that--it allows all "strangers" to be excluded from the route to the Lobby. Under the proposal, a ballot paper printed on the Order Paper a week after the original debate will be
Mrs. Browning: In a minute. The Leader of the House described the procedure that will be used; it will involve the Speaker, which is totally inappropriate. It is wrong to involve the Speaker, under the guise that the Chair is neutral, in a matter that could be so contentious across the Floor of the House. The Modernisation Committee should have identified a way in which the procedure was decided by the hon. Members who cast the votes. It should not involve the Speaker.