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7.37 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): Madam Deputy Speaker, I join in the congratulations on your promotion to the Chair--it fits you well.

The way in which Conservative Members approach the subject of our debate highlights their problems in dealing with such matters. They make a fundamental mistake to assume that the Opposition's only weapon is time. When I was elected to this place in 1979, I believed in that theory, but it is deeply flawed; it has not been true for at least 50 years and probably longer.

Part of me says that I should let the Opposition find out about their mistake in the same way as I did--trying to use that weapon to effect changes in Government policy during 18 years in opposition. During 10 years as a member of an Opposition Front-Bench team, I managed to have only one amendment accepted--by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young)--and it was not especially significant. I was not the only Member to experience that--we could not effect change by that method alone.

However, something more serious was going on. People outside this place--not least in the media--began to notice that the weapon of time merely amounted to Members of Parliament talking for talking's sake. That did the House immense damage. That is why so few

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people now take notice of our proceedings. However, if we follow through the process on which we are currently embarked--and there are many more reforms yet to come--the power and authority of Back Benchers will be increased.

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), for whom I have a great deal of respect, feels genuine anger about the lack of power for Back Benchers. I share that frustration, but as I have said to him before, he is missing the point if he thinks that we can restore that power by rowing backwards. We cannot. The great age of the House in the 19th and early 20th century occurred because the circumstances and the way in which we governed worked for that period. However, we cannot just bring that forward. We cannot live in our history; we learn from our history.

The reason why the House became the cutting edge of democracy around the world in the 19th century was precisely that it was the most modern parliament in the world. We introduced new technology. We gave greater power to Back Benchers. I want to make a few remarks about why I believe the proposals will help us. In doing so, I say to the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills that his anger is misdirected. I know that he feels it deeply, but I plead with him not to get angry but to get organised.

We must radically change a number of things in the House not only to keep up with the constitutional changes that the Government are rightly introducing but to make ourselves more relevant to the people of this country. Several Opposition Members have said that the Government are forcing the proposals through and getting their own way, and that the House does not want them. The House is governed by the majority and the majority is on the Labour Benches. The House wants more modernisation, not less.

Mr. Tyrie: I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that some Opposition Members are not against all programming in principle and see that there might be some merit in some of the proposals, but the problem is that the proposals before the House are all take and no give by the Executive. Nothing in them would enhance the ability of Back Benchers to scrutinise the Executive, and there are many ways in which our powers will be reduced. The hon. Gentleman says that we should not get angry but get organised. Can the hon. Gentleman suggest any way in which including the proposals in the Standing Orders will give any Back Benchers, including Labour Members, a chance to influence the Executive more?

Mr. Soley: That is precisely what I intended to do in a few moments. I was going to say that I hope that the hon. Gentleman will intervene again if I do not satisfy him--but perhaps I should not do so because that was a long intervention. I want to make some other brief points before I answer the hon. Gentleman's question.

One or two hon. Members have said that the proposals implement family friendly policies. They do not. If people think that finishing at 10 or 11 o'clock at night is family friendly for hon. Members who do not see their families during the week because they live back in the constituency, all that I can say is that they must have very funny families. The proposals are not about being family friendly. They may lead to a more family friendly approach, but they are about not legislating at 3 o'clock

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in the morning, which is not sensible and not understood by anyone outside the House. They are about better scrutiny of legislation, which was the point of the intervention by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie).

Mrs. Browning: I must read to the hon. Gentleman the quote from the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons), who is in her place. She said in her article for the BBC:

The priority is clearly a family friendly policy, not scrutiny.

Mr. Soley: I have no problem with that because it is obviously better for families if people are not here all night or in the early hours of the morning, but it does not follow that it is the ideal family friendly structure to finish at ll o'clock at night and not see one's family during the week. If the Government were introducing the proposals for family friendly reasons, they would start from a differing position.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps the Opposition need to consider the need for family friendly policies? If the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) looks behind her, she will see not a single woman on the Opposition Benches. Can she not understand the need for change?

Mr. Soley: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I return to the key issue of how the proposals can help to produce better legislation. For a start, we will no longer vote late into the early hours in order to kid people that we are giving better scrutiny to Bills. We know what the truth is. In the early hours when we come to vote, there is hardly anyone in the Chamber any way. That is not better scrutiny.

Then we come to the more interesting and hopeful part, which is what Opposition Members ought to focus on. If we can programme legislation, we can do one of the other things for which the Modernisation Committee and other Committees have fought for years.--we can take evidence on Bills. We all know that one of the reasons why Governments are reluctant to allow evidence-taking sessions is that they do not want to lose control of the timing of proceedings on the Bill. Government Back-Bench Members who at present sit in Committees trying to catch up with their work--that happened under the Conservative Government and it happens now--will have an opportunity to scrutinise more effectively, to question and to cross-examine.

The proposals will result in less legislation. Governments will have to face up to the fact that it will be more difficult, not easier, to get Bills through. They will make it more difficult for them to ram through lots of amendments at the last minute. It is more likely that amendments will come out of the evidence-taking sessions from hon. Members on both sides. [Hon. Members: "Why?] Opposition Members doubt that, but when the late

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Nicholas Ridley was a Minister, I was faced as Opposition Front-Bench spokesman with 1,200 amendments to a Bill--I cannot remember which one--tabled in the last few days of proceedings on it. I did what we all do. I took advice from all the pressure groups and lobby groups, partly because Members of Parliament are not resourced enough to do the research themselves. We get into the trap in which legislation is driven through either because increased numbers of Bills are introduced or because last-minute Government amendments are tabled and we cannot give them effective scrutiny--the very thing about which the Conservative party is complaining.

If we want good scrutiny, we have to do several things. First, we have to make sure that Committees take evidence and scrutinise, rather than play for time. Secondly, we have to ensure that the Opposition parties and Back Benchers achieve greater control over the time of day when Bills are debated so that debates take place under the observation of the media rather than in the early hours. All Governments kick away debates into the early hours when legislation is embarrassing. Thirdly, we must ensure that when amendments are tabled as a result of better scrutiny, the Government are able to take them.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful speech, but is not one of the problems the fact that it will still be open to the Government to do exactly what they have been doing in the past 12 months and what they did, for example, after the Omagh bombing? They have forced through on guillotine motions legislation that causes disquiet and concern to hon. Members without providing adequate time, entirely on their whim. It is a one-way system in which we are giving power to the Executive and getting nothing back.

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