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Ms Oona King: Does my hon. Friend agree that a Member who cannot make a cogent case in 10 or fewer minutes should not be in Parliament?

Mr. Pike: That is not necessarily always the case. However, on most issues most of us can make our case very clearly in 10 minutes. The timetabling proposal represents a sensible way forward and we should support it.

The voting proposal also represents a sensible move. Let us be absolutely realistic: it is nonsensical that six Opposition Members can force 250 or 350 Government Members to remain in the House. I accept that Labour Members have used such tactics, and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst knows that I was involved with them a few years ago, but that does not make that right nor does it mean that we do not want to make progress in the 21st century. Does anyone believe that a vote involving six Opposition and 350 Government Members is not an insult to democracy?

Mr. Gerald Howarth rose--

Mr. Pike: I shall not give way because I want to limit my speech to 10 minutes.

Electronic voting would improve the situation and I would welcome it. Furthermore, separating a debate from a vote is established practice. For example, that happens during the Queen's Speech debate, in Committee when groups of amendments are dealt with, and after the Budget, when a mass of votes takes place after a debate lasting several days. Let us not pretend that the majority of Members attend the Chamber to follow a debate--they might be at Standing or Select Committee sittings or dealing with their mail--and those who believe that the Whips will be able to apply more pressure are kidding themselves. Such a fear is irrelevant and unfounded, and Members who are not scrutinised as they walk across the Chamber to the Division Lobby and can vote on the Wednesday of the week following a debate will be better able to rebel and take their own line. The proposals are sensible and should be accepted. Let us move forward.

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8.47 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I very much enjoyed my two years on the Modernisation Committee. Our discussions were largely constructive and good humoured, and we were agreeably chaired by the Leader of the House. To say that I led for the Opposition would be to overstate the case, as my hon. Friends on the Committee were impossible to lead, but I am grateful to them for their support in my minority report.

I say to the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) that the Conservatives on that Committee during the past three and a half years accepted quite a lot in the interests of unanimity and making progress, and we accepted recommendations that did not always find favour with our right hon. and hon. Friends. I regret that on this occasion, for the first time in the Committee's life, we were not able to produce an agreed report.

The report is wrong for three reasons. First, set in the context of the broader debate about the powers of the House versus the powers of the Executive, the report takes a decisive step in the wrong direction by giving more powers to the Executive. Secondly, in seeking to tackle late-night sittings--no one will be happier than I to see them go--the report ignores the real problem behind the congestion in the legislative programme. Thirdly, the proposal to defer votes is more likely to enhance cynicism than confidence in the political process.

Two debates are taking place this afternoon--one about modernisation and one about strengthening. I regard them as two circles which overlap in part. Where they overlap, all-party agreement can be obtained on measures which modernise and strengthen. Some of the recommendations already implemented fall into that shaded area--voluntary programming of Bills rather than guillotines, shorter speeches so that more hon. Members are called, and the carry-over of Bills from one Session to the next by agreement. All that was done by agreement, as has been the tradition when changing the rules.

Then there is a slightly separate agenda for strengthening, which is outside the modernisation circle. The report of the Liaison Committee, "Tilting the Balance", much of the Norton commission report which we debated before the recess, the work of the Hansard Society on accountability to be published next spring--those are all essentially about strengthening, rather than modernising.

Then there is the modernisation agenda, which is not primarily about strengthening, but simply bringing us up to date, much of which I agree with--the ability to buy fax paper and batteries as well as whisky and cigarettes in the Palace of Westminster, and finding a computer on my desk as well as a telephone. That is all part of the modernisation debate.

What we have today however is a proposal that, in the name of modernisation, actually weakens Parliament. The Opposition do not have many weapons, and the report invites us to put some of them beyond use, while the Government sit on their substantial arsenal.

The first proposal contains no recognition that the Government have a role to play in enabling more user-friendly hours by drafting their legislation better and by exercising some self-restraint in the legislative programme. Despite all the evidence in pages 31 to 36, the verdict is that the Opposition are guilty, not the Government. The report then extends to all Bills a

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procedure that has not been properly tested and which has a number of defects. For example, if the Opposition parties agree a programme motion in good faith with the Government to focus debate on certain key issues, it is possible for Members to frustrate that intention by making longer contributions than they would if the Bill was not guillotined, or to focus on earlier groups of amendments so that later ones are not reached. As the report makes clear, that has already happened in the Northern Ireland legislation.

The proposed consultation in the report takes place only after, not before, the Queen's Speech is published. By that time, we may already have another over-programmed Session. The meaningful dialogue that the Government want may simply be impossible because the Opposition cannot validate an unacceptable timetable dictated by an over-ambitious legislative programme.

At the moment, we spend quite a lot of time after 10 o'clock dealing with Report and Third Reading. Where will the time come from if all discussion stops at 10? There are no answers in the report to that. The notion that once we pass these resolutions the Government will produce a series of perfectly drafted Bills is simply for the birds.

What made it impossible for me and my colleagues to go along with this section of the report was simply that the Government brought nothing to the negotiating table, as I made clear during our lengthy discussions. There is to be no discipline on the Government, just on the rest of us. For that reason, the section is unbalanced, inequitable and indefensible.

On the second proposal, I simply say that it takes the spontaneity out of the Chamber and will be widely seen as a cynical move, divorcing decision from discussion and promoting an even more mechanistic approach to decision making. On a practical note, I am happy to say that it will be a nightmare for the Government Whips to monitor. They will have to hang around the Lobbies like tipsters at a point-to-point, offering Members a marked card so that they can correctly place their bets.

In retrospect, it may have been inevitable that something like this should come out of the Modernisation Committee as currently configured. The Chairman of the Modernisation Committee is the Leader of the House, whose task as a member of the Cabinet is to deliver the Queen's Speech--she is its midwife. She winds up the debate on the Loyal Address and, every Thursday, she announces the business, which is inevitably dominated by the political imperative of getting the Bills through.

Is it right to entrust to a Committee under the chairmanship of the Leader of the House the responsibility for changing our rules? Has not the House traditionally done that? Does not the concept of a Select Committee chaired by a Cabinet Minister sit uneasily with the rationale of establishing Select Committees: to strengthen the House's ability to hold the Government to account?

The proposals are flawed and unbalanced and they derive from a flawed process. In the next Parliament, whoever wins, the House must change that process so that it can engage the Government on more equal terms.

8.55 pm

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham): I rise to support the proposals that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House presented and the amendment

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that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) tabled. I agree with the points that my hon. Friends the Members for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) made. I shall argue the case for those changes--and more--not only to make the House of Commons more effective but to make Parliament more family friendly.

Parliament has always changed its hours; they are not set in tablets of stone. It is time to change again. When I became a Member of Parliament in 1982, there were 635 Members. I was one of only 22 women; one of the 3 per cent. of women in Parliament at that time. Some hon. Members have argued that, long ago, there was a golden age when the House was much better. However, I contend that the House was much worse 20 years ago. My argument is not based on convenience, although that is an issue. It is a democratic argument.

When I became a Member of Parliament, the House was unrepresentative of women in this country. Ninety- seven per cent. of Members were men. That meant row after row of grey suits, and men talking to and sometimes shouting at other men. Women outside the House felt that Parliament had nothing to do with their lives, and they were right. I am proud that there are now more than 100 women Members, and that questions are asked about issues such as child care and balancing work and home. Such questions would have been impossible 20 years ago, but they are now mainstream. In scrutinising legislation, women raise points that were never made in a House that was almost all male.

Most women who become Members of Parliament have family responsibilities. They are mothers of young children and they are daughters of elderly parents. Being women, they often shoulder the lion's share of their family responsibilities. The fact that it is difficult for them to debate round the clock does not make them bad representatives. Far from it. It makes them essential to represent and demand change for all the women in this country whose lives are also a juggling act.

I am unimpressed by the argument, "You knew what the rules of the House were when you came here." My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson) said that we are trying to change the terms and conditions on which we entered the House. To that, I say "Good." Many of us entered Parliament not to keep things as they are but to change them, to respect our traditions and our heritage but not to let them ossify.

Some who argue against change say that we should choose between Parliament and a family. That argument is objectionable. What sort of people would be Members of Parliament if a condition of entry was either not having a family or having one but not caring about it? What credibility would Parliament have on family issues if hon. Members dumped their concerns for their families at the door of the House? People do not want their representatives to be martyrs; as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said, they want them to be human, like them.

There is no shame in arguing that Parliament should be family friendly. If we have mothers in the mother of Parliaments, Parliament must change to take that into account.

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Some argue that we are simply trying to make life easy for ourselves and that we want to cut the hours. I do not want to cut the hours. I want to move them much further forward. We should start earlier as well as finish earlier--we should start at nine and finish at five--but I agree that London can be an expensive and sometimes a lonely place for people who are away from their home and families when they are in their constituencies. It is right that some of the facilities, such as the Library, meeting rooms and refreshment areas, could be kept open in the evening.

Some Members have argued that late hours equal effective opposition and that time is an effective weapon in the hands of an Opposition. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley, I have many years of experience in opposition. Most of my parliamentary life has been in opposition, as is the case with my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush. Unlike my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who introduced the proposals, I have found myself doing my fair share of going through the night. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush: time is not an effective weapon. It is a macho game; it changes nothing.

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