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Mrs. Fitzsimons: The Speaker already has powers over the selection of amendments, which can be crucial to the outcome of votes--that has been a key to Opposition lobbying for a long time--and over free votes, such as those on abortion. Therefore, the Speaker is already considerably involved in the order of debate and so forth. Does the hon. Lady accept that?
Mrs. Browning: There is a difference between the order of debates and selection of amendments and breaking the principle that votes should be cast immediately after a debate. Those votes could now be decided outside the House, or be subject to third-party influence. The Speaker should not be required to put his name to that method. It is not only flawed, but wrong.
Mrs. Beckett: I hope that I can ease some of the hon. Lady's anxieties. It is for the House to decide whether to carry the motion. The House has to decide to carry out the procedure. It is suggested that the Speaker should exercise a general supervisory role, as he does now, through the Clerks. The reason is simply to allow a degree of flexibility.
The proposal is for a period of an hour and a half--to be interrupted by Divisions if necessary. After some experience of the system, hon. Members may speedily decide that they need a little extra or a little less time. The hon. Lady identified the problem of having sufficiently easy access to the Lobby. Those issues may be aired. We ought not to decide all the detail tonight, nor should the procedure be set in tablets of stone. The obvious people to supervise the process are the Speaker and the Clerks,
Mrs. Browning: It would be nice to know how the Committee arrived at the decision that votes on a Wednesday would be the optimum method. Clearly, it is minded to deny hon. Members a vote on substantive matters after 10 o'clock at night from the Queen's Speech onwards.
Mr. Cash: Does my hon. Friend agree that we have just been treated by the Leader of the House to an unbelievable description of what happens in practice? Does my hon. Friend also agree that if we are to do something about the situation that has developed in the past 100 years and to restore the role of the House as it used to be--a proper debating Chamber where Back Benchers have a proper role--it is essential that there is a Speaker's Conference and that the role of the Whips is included? If it is not, everything that the Leader of the House has said will turn out to be simply a handful of dust.
Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why it is of concern that the debate on this important issue will be curtailed. Matters that were not thought through by the Modernisation Committee are being brought up by Members who feel passionately about the changes and are affected by them, yet despite the importance of the matter, they will have to vote on those changes after an extremely short debate.
Mr. Fallon: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is somewhat incongruous that, under the proposals, someone entering the House on a Tuesday afternoon, after a victorious by-election, will be able to vote--on the following day--on a matter that may have been debated on the previous Wednesday night, before he or she was even elected?
Mrs. Browning: That is why I suggested a litmus test for the Modernisation Committee's proposals: whether they enhance the democratic process. The excellent example given by my hon. Friend shows what a mockery the proposal is.
Mr. Duncan Smith: Will my hon. Friend make it clear to the Leader of the House that to delay votes until Wednesdays puts phenomenal power into the hands of the Whips? As someone who rebelled on many occasions during the previous Parliament, I have experienced that power, but many Labour Members do not experience it--nor have they done so in the past. The power to register one's vote almost immediately--having worked out the issues during a debate--takes away hugely from the
Mrs. Browning: Indeed. That is why I drew attention to the fact that a time lag of up to a week would subject Members to external pressure that could not be exerted if votes immediately followed debates--pressure from the Whips and possibly from the media and special interest lobby groups. That would break a fundamental rule that we have always upheld: the right of individual Members to cast their vote according to their own judgment. As a result of the proposal, Members would be subject to extraneous pressures.
The proposals would diminish attendance and interest in the Chamber. Their main purpose is to make it easier for the Government to push through not only primary but secondary legislation. The Leader of the House referred to the important votes, but for many of us, the volume of secondary legislation passed by the House is equally important. We hear from people outside this place about the burdens on business and the weight of bureaucracy and red tape, most of which comes from secondary legislation. However, such matters are to be downgraded in the deliberations of the House--at a time when we need to scrutinise secondary legislation even more carefully in this place, rather than introducing a system that makes it more advantageous for Members to be elsewhere and that permits debates to be held much later in the scrutiny process.
The voting system recommended by the Modernisation Committee breaks with most parliamentary conventions. When we vote, we do so on behalf of our constituents. Of course, those of us elected on a party ticket generally vote with our party--with the Government of the day if our party is in power. However, many Members, of all parties, exercise the right to disobey their party Whips--we have heard some examples this evening. I voted against the wishes of my party on two occasions. I did so for principled reasons on matters of importance to me and my constituents. Important issues will be debated after 10 o'clock at night. It is essential that Members have the right to cast their vote immediately after such debates.
Sir Patrick Cormack: As someone who not infrequently voted against the Conservative Government on matters such as free sight tests and free dental inspections--matters that appeal to Labour Members-- I point out to my hon. Friend that it would not have been easy to wait a week to vote on a Wednesday. If there is to be deferred voting, we should hold it at 9 am the following morning, when Members have had a chance to read Hansard. They should then vote properly in the Lobbies. That is the most that we should do.
Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend tempts me to try to tweak the Modernisation Committee's ill thought through proposals in order to improve them a little. I oppose the proposals on a point of principle. I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend will want to be involved in the new policies that a Conservative Government will introduce. They would enable Members to put their responsibility
Mrs. Browning: As the hon. Gentleman has first-hand experience, perhaps he agrees with the report on that experiment: in almost everyone's view, holding debates in the morning and voting later in the day was an abysmal failure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge- Brownhills pointed out, the change was made purely to accommodate the Government.
Mr. Winnick: The experiments did not succeed, because the Conservatives thought that it was wrong for us to sit in the morning and for votes to be taken later. Surely, we should advance from that. As I have proposed on other occasions, the times of our Thursday sitting should be repeated on other days--certainly on Wednesdays.
Mrs. Browning: I shall not be drawn on that. If I had wanted to tweak the proposals, I should have tabled amendments to the motions. I did not do so because I object to the motions on principle. Although I was not a Member of the House during the Crossman years, I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I remind him that the Crossman diaries show clearly that the motivation for that change was not the interest of Back Benchers but that of the then Government.
The views of the House and its individual Members are important. If the proceedings of this place are to reflect our responsibility as the democratically elected representatives of the people, neither of the motions will strengthen that responsibility. It is for that reason that I shall vote against both motions; I urge my hon. Friends to do the same.