Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Soley: The hon. Gentleman is wrong and time will prove him wrong. We are setting up a series of structures. I readily admit that more modernisation is necessary to make the system work well, but the proposals will improve it.

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soley: I shall make another point first. It may help to answer the hon. Gentleman's question.

About two years ago, I came to the conclusion that the argument about time in this Chamber started from the wrong position. It was almost impossible to argue about when the House of Commons should start and stop sitting unless first we made the conscious decision that we had too much happening on the Floor of the House. That is why I produced a paper calling for what was then described as a parallel Chamber. It is now Westminster Hall. I wanted to get much of the stuff that unnecessarily takes up time on the Floor of the House into a Chamber in which Back Benchers would have a greater voice and in which we could have more debates on Select Committee reports. Back Benchers now have greater opportunities and we can also increasingly carry out the work of this

7 Nov 2000 : Column 238

Chamber in the hours in which the media can examine our work. By focusing our work in that way, we can achieve the better scrutiny that we all genuinely want.

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soley: I shall give way for the last time, because interventions are taking up too much time.

Mr. Bercow: Further to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, when there are substantial numbers of Government amendments to a Bill, the decision as to whether to alter the timetable for the consideration of that Bill will not be automatic but discretionary, and, similarly, that the extent of any such alteration will be entirely subject to ministerial fiat?

Mr. Soley: The hon. Gentleman appears to fail to appreciate my view that the direction that our modernisation efforts are taking will impose a discipline on both Labour and Tory Governments that they have not experienced before. First, modernisation will produce less legislation because Governments will know that they will have a finite time for it. There will be clear times at which legislation will enter and exit the pipeline. Secondly, they will concentrate on getting the legislation right rather than on dreaming up umpteen amendments at the last minute and banging them on to the Floor of the House. That has happened under Governments of both colours, and it is a very bad practice.

We have to build on these proposals. I would like the House to support the motions as part of a process and not as an answer in themselves. They form one step among many. We will then need to go for post-legislative scrutiny so that, after a Bill has become an Act, we can examine how it has worked. The Conservative Members who have told us that those who are now in opposition will be in government tomorrow and vice versa are right, but have they already forgotten the lessons of the poll tax and the Child Support Agency?

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham): And rail privatisation.

Mr. Soley: Yes, and rail privatisation.

Would the Conservative Government have got into such a mess if they had had better scrutiny during the legislative process and Acts had been subject to post-legislative scrutiny? I do not think that they would.

I take a similar view to the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills on giving power to Back Benchers, even though we have a totally different approach on how to do that. We must consider the way in which Select Committees work, and I regret the fact that I shall not be present for Thursday's debate. We must also consider providing more resources to Members, so that they can do their job better, and we must examine the management of the House of Commons, which does not have a committee to address the needs of Back Benchers. That is why I would like there to be a radical reform of the House of Commons Commission. All those proposals could return the House to the position that it had when being a Back-Bench Member really mattered. Back Benchers attracted the attention of people outside and were listened to.

7 Nov 2000 : Column 239

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) does in the early hours of the morning many of the things that I did in the early 1980s. I did exactly the same, but that did not help me. We did not win, but kept losing. However, the most frustrating aspect was not losing but the fact that one's best arguments were totally lost on the general public and the wider world. They are not interested in tactics that merely bring the House into disrepute. That does the damage, and that is why we should take another step towards putting it right and putting the House in the forefront where it used to be 100 years ago when it was the leading legislature in the world. People used this place as an example, but they will not do that with the model that we followed in the late 20th century and that we are following now.

7.54 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am sure that you will be delighted that, for once, the House is taking seriously the business of its own business and that we are not considering this issue rather flippantly late at night.

There are Members on both sides of the House who genuinely come to this issue with an open mind. Without exception, all the members of the Modernisation Committee have addressed the problems to the best of their ability and by using a great deal of experience and expertise. The Committee particularly misses the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who brought to it a level-headed approach and always tried to ensure that we moved with consensus across the Committee.

I take up the point made by the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson)--why are we here? The hon. Member for Ealing, South and North Acton--it is something like that--

Mr. Bercow: Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush.

Mr. Tyler: Yes, the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley)--I should have remembered that it had something to do with sheep--raised the issue of what the world out there thinks of the way in which we arrange our business, and it is important that we do not become so introspective that we do not recognise that there is a real problem with the way in which people outside perceive us. It is perfectly true that Americans love watching Prime Minister's Question Time, but does anyone on either side of the House think that the Government's activities are scrutinised effectively by the House of Commons in that half hour? Of course not--it is theatre. Similarly, most Question Times may provide information, but, usually, they produce more heat than light.

However, Westminster Hall, the Select Committees, the Standing Committees and a Committee of the whole House provide us with a real opportunity to put a Minister on the spot. It is extremely important that we recognise from the start that we are not in a golden age in which everything is wonderful. I start from the premise that we may not be totally broke, but we are somewhere near it and that it needs fixing. Hon. Members on both sides somehow think that we have achieved perfection in scrutinising the work of the Government--be that their

7 Nov 2000 : Column 240

Executive actions or their legislation. I do not believe that, and I certainly do not believe that the electorate who put us here believe it.

We have already heard the quotation from a former Leader of the House, Lord Newton, and I also draw attention to the interesting pamphlet produced by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), in which he advances the case for agreed programme motions. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not here now, but his wisdom is to be encouraged.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Tyler: No, because I want to make progress and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wants to speak. We have very little time as the result of his colleagues activities earlier this evening.

I take as my text a quotation from the minority report put before the Modernisation Committee by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire. He said:

I agree, and I think that the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush and Members on both sides would do so, too. I was here in 1974 and I remember what Parliament was like then. Under successive Governments, attempts have been made by those on the Front Benches--and sometimes in collusion, it has to be said--to prevent the House of Commons from acting as effectively as it should. That is why I welcome the Government's agreement to the Liberal Democrats' suggestion that there should be an informal ad hoc sessional business committee. That would provide Back Benchers and both Opposition parties with real opportunities to tilt the terms of trade back towards the House.

For example, we could say that it would be more appropriate for such and such a Bill to go to the Lords first, because it is not so controversial and we want to get our hands on another Bill. At present, such decisions are made within the confines of a small group of people who sit on the Treasury Bench. The House of Commons is entitled to take a view on such issues. We are also entitled to express a view on which Bills might be better understood by being subject to scrutiny before the full Standing Committee process. That would be helpful.

The interminable debates in the House about how to avoid interminable debates must reach a conclusion. Anyone who has read the Crossman report and the Jopling reforms will know that there were endless discussions about trying to concentrate our efforts on the issues that people wanted to discuss. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) moved a motion in the Jopling committee and it is referred to in the documents before us today. He suggested that the speeches of Front Benchers should be subject to the same restrictions as those that are often imposed on the speeches of Back Benchers. I say amen to that, and other Members have expressed a similar view. Curiously, Front-Bench Members are not very enthusiastic about that attempt to ensure succinctness.

I am keen on the close examination of legislation to which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred. It is a pity that, having fired her Exocet, she has left her place, because she made an

7 Nov 2000 : Column 241

important point. Anyone who really thinks that the Floor of the House of Commons at 3 o'clock in the morning is the right place to ensure close examination of legislation--and I have been here then, doing just that--has another think coming. I am sure that she would agree.

Next Section

IndexHome Page