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Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I want to deal with programming and the role of Back-Bench Members. Both sides of the House--the Leader of the House and even my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning)--have talked about the agreement that can be reached through the usual channels on programming. Would my right hon. Friend care to speculate with me on the opportunity that genuine Back-Bench Members will have to influence the programming of legislation?
Mr. Forth: The mere mention of agreement between the Front Benches causes me great fear and trepidation. I hope that there will be few such agreements. If those agreements were to be made, I suspect that that would diminish yet further the role of Back-Bench Members, who after all are in the majority. There are far more Back-Benchers in the House than there are Members on the Government payroll or Front-Bench Members. It strikes me that anything that is arrived at by cosy consensus through the usual channels will be undesirable for Back Benchers.
It seems from much of what has been said that deferred Divisions are so patently absurd that they are barely worth discussing. It is worrying, however, that Members seem to be serious in their desire to have Divisions deferred. Some may accuse me occasionally of being slightly cynical about these matters, but it strikes me that the proposals contain at least the possibility that, were the Government to wish artificially to prolong debates so that votes could not take place before 10 o'clock, we could
In other words, we would be reducing the House, perhaps so that Labour Members could spend more time in their constituencies--I know not what. Members could turn up once a week and vote, probably on the basis of a list given to them by the Whips. They would not have been present for the debates and they would be unaware of the content of the issues. After voting, they could leave.
In the meantime, if there were doubts about the way in which Members would vote, they would be under pressure from the Whips or others, who would tell them how to vote as the voting day approached. I fear greatly for what the results of that might be. Perhaps the Government are not as clever, cynical or subtle as I have suggested and would not organise such a system. Perhaps unwittingly I have given them a tip. If we begin to consider the implications of the formal and systematic detaching of Divisions from debates, we shall take the House into difficult territory.
I believe that all the proposals are bad and that they should be opposed. I hope that the House does not approve them. However, having looked at the disposal of votes in the previous two Divisions, I fear that this is very much a Government versus the rest of the House matter. That is the most worrying feature of all. We see the massed ranks of Government Members coming into the House to vote these measures through, when the only beneficiary can be the Government. That is surely the final condemnation of the proposals.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): I am glad to have the opportunity of saying a few words in this important debate and to take up some of the remarks of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). I shall take a different line from his.
I am mindful of the right hon. Gentleman's statement that many Labour Members have not experienced opposition. I spent 14 years in opposition, and since then three and a half years as a Government Member. As for the right hon. Gentleman's other stricture, I would say that I am a fairly diligent Member. My attendance is fairly good and my voting record is as good as most Labour or Opposition Members'.
I support the Government's proposals because they are important steps forward in modernising the House and ensuring better scrutiny of legislation. We are not emphasising enough that the issues are not only about hours or a family-friendly working situation, although those are important factors. We are seeking to ensure that the House does its job better than it has done so far. The proposals before us could help to ensure that outcome.
The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) wants to debate other modernisation issues, as do I. He knows that I want us to consider the tabling of written questions during recesses, and there should be a five-year rolling programme under which legislation could be introduced at a steady pace throughout each year. Instead of a Queen's Speech every November or December, as is the case this year, there should be a time limit--perhaps of a year--within which legislation should complete its passage. There is a lot that we could do.
Unlike the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, I would like every Friday sitting to be scrapped. There is uncertainty over when constituency Fridays will fall, which does not help Members who live away from London to plan their diaries and make arrangements. I am already booking Fridays to February next year--not for advice bureaux, which I hold every Saturday, but because people want me to fulfil constituency commitments such as meeting councillors, visiting companies and considering the problems of local schools.
Provincial Members would be helped if they could get out of Friday sittings altogether. At present, they are torn between being at the House for a vote on an important issue and fulfilling a constituency commitment. Private Members' legislation would be given a better crack of the whip if we dealt with it on Wednesday mornings and if facilities in the Chamber released by the Westminster Hall experiment were made available.
I am a strong supporter of the programming proposal, and regret what happened during the Modernisation Committee debate on it. We bent over backwards to reach a consensus, considered different drafts week after week and tried to reach agreement with Conservative Members and with the Liberals, who were more accommodating. We tried to meet Opposition Members' concerns and make a deal on what we proposed. It was not intended that the Modernisation Committee report should be favourable only to the Government. We wanted it to be favourable to the Opposition to ensure that the House scrutinised legislation better and that a fairer deal was provided. I worked hard to that end. I accept that the Opposition of today could be the Government of tomorrow. I said that in Romania to President Iliescu, who denounced me for it, but a few years later he was in opposition. I accept that changes are inevitable, although I hope that my hon. Friends and I will sit on this side of the House for a long time to come.
Programming would help the Government to plan their legislative timetable, but it would also ensure better scrutiny. Like me, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was a member of the Committee that considered the Transport Act 1985, and he used to groan when I, my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) or one or two others rose to speak. During one sitting, even though I had only five words noted on my slip of paper, I was told that I had to speak for four hours. I managed four hours and 10 minutes. That night, we told the Government that we could progress to clause 7, however long that might take. We got to clause 7 at 2 o'clock the following afternoon and abandoned the sitting. That was nonsensical.
As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is now, I too have been a time waster. Members can make sensible contributions briefly and the programming proposal is about having meaningful debates. That night in Committee, I could have made my speech in 10 minutes, but we knew how much progress we would allow the Government to make. As he will remember, the 1985 Act contained a pensions clause relating to the National Bus Company, but we never managed to debate that burning issue because proceedings were guillotined. Once that had happened, the debate was under the Government's control and, even though Conservative
The proposals represent a major step forward, and it was a tragedy that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), for whom I have great respect, produced a minority report out of the blue on the last day of proceedings in the Modernisation Committee. He made a contrary proposal, which we had to debate despite having worked for weeks to reach agreement, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and Labour members of the Committee leaned over backwards to try to reach a consensus. The timetabling proposal is sensible and will achieve much better debates.
There should also be time limits on speeches made in Committee, because it is nonsensical that Members can make long, boring and repetitive contributions that stray from the point. They return to order only when told to do so by the Chair.