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Mr. Casale: We have discussed the matter on a number of occasions. My hon. Friend will know that I once thought that late-night sittings were a way to grind down the Executive. I now realise that I was wrong. They grind us down as legislators and prevent us from effectively discharging our parliamentary and constituency duties, especially if we have family responsibilities. Most important, they grind down the esteem of this place in the minds and eyes of the people who sent us here in the first place.

Ms Harman: I agree with all my hon. Friend's points, but the final point he makes is absolutely right. I give an example. When I was in the shadow health team and the current Foreign Secretary was shadow Secretary of State for Health--I was his deputy--we took the House through the night, opposing the opting out of NHS hospitals into NHS trusts. It was entirely pointless. Not one single hospital remained non-opted out as a result. However, when I was shadow Chief Secretary, the Opposition won the vote to stop value added tax on gas and electricity going from 8 to 17.5 per cent. We did that not by staying up all night, but by comprehensively winning the argument in the House and in the country. It is that on which successful opposition depends.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Perhaps I can give the hon. Lady a more up-to-date example. When she was Secretary of State for Social Security and there was a huge row on the Labour Benches about cuts to lone parent benefit, by deferring the vote for three or four days, would the rebellion have been greater or smaller?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman is trying to imply that timing of votes or delay make a difference to the outcome and that that, of itself, is a weapon. I do not believe that anything that has happened since we have been in government has been changed by the tactics of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) or anyone else.

Some people have argued that we want to weaken the Opposition. That is absolutely not my case. It is important that we have strong, effective and credible opposition.

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We all know that over-powerful Governments make mistakes--we need look only at rail privatisation and the poll tax. We need to find ways of making parliamentary scrutiny of legislation more effective.

That is one of the reasons why, when I was Secretary of State for Social Security and we embarked on the complex issue of pension sharing on divorce, we experimented by establishing pre-legislative scrutiny under the leadership of the Select Committee on Social Security--an all-party Committee, chaired by a member of the Opposition party. There are things that we can do to improve scrutiny. Staying up all night and using time as a weapon is not one of them.

Some have said that those of us who argue for family-friendly hours do not recognise that the situation is different for Members whose constituencies are outside London. I have always argued that we should start no earlier than we do now on Mondays, so that Members outside London have time to travel to Westminster. I have also always argued that we should start earlier and finish earlier on Thursdays, so that Members have a chance not only to do the work described by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley on Fridays, but to attend evening engagements in their constituencies on Thursdays. It is not acceptable for Members to have to be here all week, and then spend all their weekend on constituency business. That makes them exiles from their families. Again, I have always argued that it is wrong for the House to rise at the end of July and not return until mid-October, thereby ensuring that Scottish Members are in London when their children are on holiday and in Scotland when their children are back at school.

Much of what has been said today reflects a desire to return to some bygone golden era of an effective Parliament. Of course we should strive to enhance the authority, legitimacy and credibility of Parliament--otherwise Governments will always give in to the temptation to go over Parliament's head--but we shall not achieve that by moaning about others.

The Opposition are, I think, going through a transitional period. If there is a problem, it is not the fault of the "Today" programme, or even the fault of Ministers. Looking around for others to blame for a perceived loss of our own power is just a way of avoiding the challenge to us to change ourselves--and we have the power to make that change. It is for us to build a new credibility and authority for Parliament, enabling it to scrutinise legislation effectively and hold the Government to account. I believe we can best do that by moving forward--not looking back or clinging to the past, but creating a modern, efficient, daytime Chamber, and abandoning the old night-time ways of the gentlemen's club.

9.7 pm

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): I will be brief, because I know that others wish to speak.

These measures have been sold to us today on the grounds that they are new, that they are modern, and that they are all about modernising and reforming Parliament. I think that they are nothing of the kind. These measures are not being introduced for the convenience of Parliament, they will not make Parliament more accountable, and they are certainly not for the convenience of the Opposition.

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The fact of the matter is that these measures will act for the convenience of the Government and Ministers, so that they can get their legislation through. They will act for the convenience of Ministers who will not have to spend as much time "tied up"--as their private offices would put it--in the House of Commons. I suspect that, above all, they are being introduced--as the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) has just demonstrated--for the convenience of Government Members who, having spent every available hour trying to get elected to Westminster, evidently do not like the hours that operate at Westminster during the months when Parliament is actually sitting. The right hon. Lady did not quite make that point.

A number of conversions seem to have taken place. The most dramatic confession was the one that we heard a few moments ago, but let me remind the House that it was all very different when Labour was in opposition. The first Bill that I introduced--I was Minister of Transport at the time--was the one that became the Transport Act 1980. It was a manifesto measure, which denationalised the National Freight Corporation and reformed and abolished many traffic commissioner rules. Although it was, as I say, a manifesto measure, the then Opposition kept us in Committee for 110 hours, and there were 123 Divisions. At no stage did we introduce a guillotine.

The extraordinary backwoodsmen of the Opposition who took us through the night were Albert Booth, who was the chief spokesman, and his chief lieutenants, the present Deputy Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), the former Health Secretary and an unsuccessful candidate for the post of London Mayor. They opposed the measure, wanted to subject it to line-by-line scrutiny and knew that by taking us on night and day they might find a chink in it. I do not object to that, as that is the purpose of opposition. If the then Opposition did not find the chink or defect, they could delay the Government's legislative programme, which is entirely legitimate.

The House must recognise that it is legitimate for the Opposition to do that. Ministers now talk about smoothing the progress of legislation, but we are not civil servants, and that is not our function. We are certainly not trying to run a business, although the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) tried to suggest that we were. We are Members of Parliament, and one of the jobs of Opposition Members is to oppose--which appears to come as a shock to certain Government Members, who seem to believe that a big majority gives them absolute power. That position was well understood by the Government when they were in opposition, in which role some of them were very good, including the late Bob Cryer, who was an excellent exponent of that art.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is right to say that delaying the Government's legislative programme is a legitimate weapon of opposition. It is not the only weapon, but it is an important one. The Leader of the House says that Members of Parliament should decide what they want to focus on in debates in the House of Commons. However, the argument goes the other way, and Governments need

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to focus on deciding which legislation they will introduce, which legislation they can get through the House and which legislation they can pass through Parliament.

Mr. Soley: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler: If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall not, as I have very little time.

Above all, the Government should not try to overload the system. The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) and anyone who has had any experience of government will know that at one end of Westminster are civil servants who have draft Bills in the bottom drawers of their desks and are waiting for a gullible Minister to come along and introduce those Bills. We all know that that happens, whether the Government are Labour or Conservative. At the other end of Westminster are politicians who are trying to introduce legislation that will be highly controversial with the public, but perhaps not so controversial with their party, or a faction of it.

It is a thoroughly good thing that the Opposition make the controllers of the legislative machine pause and introduce Bills that are necessary and a matter of priority. I therefore defend the Opposition's role in delaying legislation. We should be concerned, not about Parliament's hours or voting procedures, but about its status and position. I do not accept the Government's arguments on that, because above all, we should be concerned that Parliament is being marginalised by the Executive, and the Government are riding roughshod over the legitimate fears of the House. When I was shadow Home Secretary, I took part in debate after debate on the closed list voting system for the European elections. There was hardly a friend of the closed list on either side of the House, and hardly anyone, apart from the Home Secretary, spoke in favour of it. However, the legislation went through with massive majorities.

We should be concerned about such matters, and should be fundamentally anxious that so much political debate now takes place not in Parliament, but in the studios of John Humphrys and the brothers Dimbleby. If we had any sense, we would be debating such issues.

Although I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush--he made a good re-election speech, and I wish him well in his task--the voting method that we are introducing is best characterised as a comic opera, and it is being introduced simply to prevent--perish the thought--Members of Parliament from staying up past 10 o'clock at night.

We are also going to separate the debate from the Division. I think that that would be wrong. It is absurd to attempt to draw an analogy between that and the ballot for private Members' Bills.

Worse, we are going to introduce a system that fails even by its own standards. The system will produce not better, but worse legislation. It will also not reduce, but increase the volume of badly drafted legislation, for it will make it easier for the Government to pass their legislative programme by reducing scrutiny and making the Opposition's job more difficult. The only ones who will really rejoice are the Ministers who have to pass the legislation and the civil servants who have to prepare it.

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As drafted and presented to the House, the proposals represent one more victory for the Executive over Parliament. The first speech that I made in the 1997 Parliament, before going into the shadow Cabinet, was on a guillotine motion. I said then that the Government were giving the impression by their actions that they were thinking:

In the past three years, that impression has hardened and hardened. They are a Government who not only hate being held to account, but clearly resent the whole process. "Who are these MPs?" they seem to ask. "We have our majority. We will rule. Take it or leave it." The Leader of the House came very close to saying that in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning).

Ministers seem to believe that arrogant government is strong government. It is not. If there is one silver lining to this debate, it is that that quality of arrogance will finally bring down this Government.

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