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8.12 pm

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): The proposals are a big step forward in the modernisation of the House's procedures. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, as she makes her way out of the Chamber, on producing an innovative solution to some of the

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problems to which we have drawn her attention. The proposals will make the House more effective and more efficient. Yes, we need proper time to scrutinise legislation--that leads to better Bills and better law--but that does not mean that we need open-ended time or rambling speeches in which the same points are made over and again. Let us try to make ourselves much more like a modern business, which would not waste its time as we do.

After a good summer break and a fairly light parliamentary timetable so far, most Members of Parliament--at least those on the Government Benches--are beginning to feel like normal human beings. However, I remind hon. Members of earlier in the Session, when we had votes after midnight on a number of occasions. The problem was not so much the lateness of the hour but the uncertainty of how long we would be kept here and whether we would be required to vote. The proposals would remove such uncertainty and allow right hon. and hon. Members to get home at a reasonable time and have a proper night's sleep. I believe that that is important because there is much work for a Member of Parliament both inside and outside the House. We cannot work effectively if we are tired and exhausted.

It has been argued that the proposals will reduce the powers of the Opposition. They will reduce the power of a handful of Tory Back Benchers to hold the House to ransom. A moment ago, in a sedentary exchange, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) admitted to my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) that some of the proceedings that he conducted were to irritate us; he has been open about that. Under the proposals, it will no longer be possible to table amendments, which, though in order, add little to the debate--their sole purpose being to keep Government Members in the House in case of a vote.

Mr. Swayne: Was the hon. Lady present for any of the proceedings of the Scotland Bill, which was programmed as it went through the House? If she was, did she observe that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was constantly frustrated by the programme motion, which, in effect, silenced him on points that he legitimately wished to raise? Has it not occurred to her that the programming will be a stitch-up between the Front-Bench teams to the exclusion of Back Benchers' legitimate points of view?

Mrs. Campbell: I should be very surprised if my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) were silenced by any procedure. He is well capable of making the comments that he wants to make, and making them very forcefully and effectively.

The handful of Tory Back Benchers to whom I referred are the sort of Opposition Members who believe in bludgeoning their opponents with tiredness and exhaustion. That is not about opposition; it is not opposition as people outside the House perceive it. They want to hear the arguments and the debate. They do not want to hear Members of Parliament who are tired and out of touch because they are here until the small hours of the morning.

The Opposition are being offered greater powers in exchange. The Modernisation Committee proposals suggest that an informal committee meets after the

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Queen's Speech to decide the length of time to consider each Bill, and there will be a programming sub-committee to decide when and for how long contentious parts of Bills will be debated. That is right. It will give people outside the House a better chance to hear the arguments.

Mr. Grieve: In the present Parliament, it has been possible for the Government and the Opposition to arrive at informal arrangements on programming legislation that was taking time, but does the hon. Lady agree that the usual effect of that--we witnessed it when considering the Scotland Bill in Committee--has been to leave reams of amendments and clauses unscrutinised? How will the proposed system be any better in practice? Will she explain that?

Mrs. Campbell: Programming is obviously more effective than the way in which we proceeded previously. If the hon. Gentleman goes into the matter in more depth, he will find that the Tory Whips could not deliver what was agreed between the Government and the Tory Opposition.

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Lady give way on that point?

Mrs. Campbell: No, I am not giving way again. I have given way twice and I know that many others want to speak.

It is true that the House is held in less respect than in the past. Opposition Members should reflect on that fact and ask themselves why. It is because debate is considered increasingly irrelevant to people's lives. It is because politicians are not seen to be normal people with normal lives. We do not go home in the evening; we do not watch the same television programmes as other people; we lose touch with our families, our children, our grandchildren. We impose that stress on ourselves and on the large number of people who work in this place and serve us so well. If we are so different from other people, how can we properly represent them?

I approve of almost everything in the proposals. No one outside this place would consider them radical. On the contrary, they would consider them just sensible moves by which we can discuss business at times when people are awake. However, I have concerns, and one in particular. That is why I have tabled a very modest amendment, which has been supported by many of my hon. Friends and found support on the Liberal Democrat Benches, too.

The purpose of my amendment is to remove an anomaly in the Modernisation Committee proposals. It is proposed that debate on a programme motion takes place after Second Reading. That means that we could finish debate at 10 o'clock, take votes, debate the programme motion for three quarters of an hour and then take votes on that, keeping right hon. and hon. Members here until 11.30 pm or later. I do not find that acceptable. I propose a very modest amendment that would provide adequate time for debate on Second Reading and on a programme motion, and still we could get home at a reasonable time in order to live like reasonable people.

Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. Lady explain how her amendment would leave the amount of time for the Second Reading intact?

Mrs. Campbell: Of course, the amendment would reduce the amount of time for Second Reading from about

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six hours to five and a half hours. If the hon. Gentleman sees that as a problem, I suggest that he tries to get Opposition Members to be a little more succinct and to express their arguments in a less rambling way than some of them sometimes do.

I believe that we would have adequate time for Second Reading debates under my amendment, which I hope will be supported by a majority of the House.

8.20 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I have difficulty with all the proposals, not least because the analysis that gave rise to them is terribly flawed. I start with the proposition that seems to underpin many of the proposals--that the House does not have enough time to deal with the matters with which it wants to deal through scrutiny and by holding the Government to account. That puzzles me.

If one examines the pattern on which the House now works, it is clear that the House does not sit on most Fridays. Friday used to be a parliamentary working day. We are told that we are desperately short of time, yet the House of Commons chooses not to sit on most Fridays.

There are occasions when the Government artificially prolong a debate--often a Second Reading debate--that could be concluded quite early, allowing us to move on to other business fairly readily, except for the convenience of hon. Members. As we have heard from several Members on the Government Benches, they get upset if they cannot be told exactly what will happen and when. They may be forced to stay in the House or even in the Chamber, because they do not know when the votes may occur. The truth is that we could get a lot more business done in the time if we did not work simply for the convenience of hon. Members, and if the Government Whips did not have to prolong the business artificially so that delicate Labour Members could know what was happening and could return to the House.

Joan Ruddock: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he not think that it is for the convenience of our constituents, and extremely important to them, that we are available on a Friday to deal with matters in the constituency and to conduct surgeries? I believe that the right hon. Gentleman does not conduct surgeries. We all do, and we consider it extremely important to make ourselves available in a democratic way in order that people can raise issues of great importance with us.

Mr. Forth: When I did waste my time and that of my constituents doing surgeries on Saturdays, that allowed me to be in the House on Fridays, which I was on all or most occasions when the House used to sit on Fridays.

The hon. Lady's comments give lie to an important consideration which has underpinned much of the debate. For reasons that I think I can begin to understand, Members on the Government Benches see their work in the House as being of little or no relevance, but see their work in the constituency, as the hon. Lady puts it, as being of overriding importance. I dispute that.

My view is that the principal and most important work of a Member of Parliament is here, at Westminster, in and around the House of Commons, primarily holding the Government to account, scrutinising legislation and

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questioning the Executive. That is what I believe should be the most important part of the work of a Member of Parliament, so I entirely reject the hon. Lady's assumption that any excuse to be away from here somehow legitimises her work and that of her colleagues.

We can see that theme running right through the proposals, which seem to be designed--particularly the deferred Divisions proposals--to make sure that hon. Members are not here for most of the time and appear only briefly and when it is convenient for them to do so. To my mind, any proposal that starts from the assumption that it is for the convenience of hon. Members misses the whole point of the House of Commons and the relationship between the Executive and the House. That, I believe, is one of the reasons why there is a difficulty in achieving consensus, about which we heard a moment ago.

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