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9.17 pm

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): I am somewhat disappointed that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) should have made such a speech, as I remember him saying at one time that he sought to spend more time with his family.

I support the proposals, and I certainly support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). I can also tell the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) that the Leader of the House certainly speaks for me. This is not a matter of the Government imposing something on their own Back Benchers or on anyone else, but a case of a Leader of this place listening to Back Benchers. That is what we have in modernisation, and that is what I have campaigned for in the 13 years for which I have been a Member. Although I wholeheartedly support the proposals, they are really very modest indeed.

Much has been made today of the issue of scrutiny. However, as many of my hon. Friends have pointed out very clearly, based both on our own general observations and on our observations of Conservative Members, spending time debating is in no way equivalent to being effective in scrutiny. Many people try to speak in debates--this debate will be no different from all other debates in that respect--but, because of the length of some of the speeches, are unable to do so. That diminishes scrutiny. The arrogance of a few Opposition Members, from whom we have heard today, holds the House hostage and prevents the most effective deliberation. The whole House has to deal with their arrogance. The issue is not one of scrutiny.

Mr. Redwood: Does the hon. Lady realise that there are many Opposition Members who, when they were Ministers, thought that time was a very useful weapon for the Opposition and that, at times, it was very well used? The reason why it works is that if one delays the Government and makes them think again and argue their case, they cannot rush through so much bodged legislation. It is important that the then Opposition did it to us, and it is equally important that we should do it to them.

Joan Ruddock: The right hon. Gentleman is clearly wasting his time, and has not been listening to the debate.

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The examples given by Labour Members about the Government in which he served--such as rail privatisation and the poll tax--demonstrate that his point about the Opposition needing time is complete nonsense. Nothing is changed by using what he and others have described as their most potent weapon. The real scrutiny that should--and does, by and large--take place in the House happens in Standing Committees, during Question Time, when there are statements in the House, and, indeed, in Select Committees. We should look at how we can enhance the role of those procedures and the opportunities that they present. How many times have I attended Question Time and been unable to get in? How many times have I listened to a statement and been unable to get in? Those are the real frustrations of Back Benchers. We want the opportunity to express our views. We certainly do not want to sit here into the early hours of the morning listening to long speeches, primarily by Conservative Members.

Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Joan Ruddock: No. This is a Back Benchers' debate. Proper scrutiny depends not on the length of speeches, but on their intellectual rigour. That intellectual rigour is often lacking, because of very wordy contributions and time-wasting tactics that are frequently employed by the Opposition.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who spoke immediately before my maiden speech just over a year ago, which I well remember. One reason that my constituency sent me here is that they wished me to be their man at Westminster, not Westminster's man in Eddisbury. According to my constituents, the value of debate is that it draws on the expertise of many who may not have a formal role in discussing the legislation concerned. That might take longer, so the debate continues into the night. My constituents also expect our debates to be illuminating and educative as well as combative. I hope that the hon. Lady takes that into account.

Joan Ruddock: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I wonder just how edifying his constituents found the debates that have taken place after midnight. I wonder how many of them actually read those debates or listen to them. Indeed, I wonder whether they have heard his speeches in the early hours of the morning. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman takes a poll of his constituents and finds out how many of them follow our deliberations in the House. Perhaps he should consult them before forming a view. I have consulted my constituents, and I know that they do not follow the procedures of the House. They do not identify with the people here and the nonsense that they feel is talked.

The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) said that the principles of democracy would be buried tonight.

Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I am sure that a lot of people out there could not give a monkey's about what we do late at night. I have a great deal of sympathy for family friendly policies, but I do not want to jeopardise the traditions of parliamentary scrutiny. I should like changes that will improve scrutiny, and be more family friendly.

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My hon. Friend has to decide what comes first if there is a conflict. Does she believe that any of tonight's proposals are conflicting? Some of us do.

Joan Ruddock: Let me answer that question directly. I do not have the slightest doubt that programming legislation must come first. If we programme legislation, we can make many of the changes that he and I seek, but without programming we cannot make sense of our procedures. People cannot follow our procedures because they are so cumbersome and impossible to understand. Indeed, few people will have understood tonight's debate.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Joan Ruddock: No. I must make progress as others are waiting to speak.

What is the principle of democracy that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks suggested would be buried tonight? I suggest that the only principle at stake here is the principle that one, two or three people can hold the House to ransom. That is the reality of what happens here.

Since April, there have been 78 sittings days. On a quarter of those days, the House sat after midnight. During July, our finishing times included 12.10 am, 1.27 am, 3.4 am, 1.44 am, 3.26 am, and 3.50 am. What do people outside the House think about those who sit up until those hours talking and talking to themselves when no one is listening? That is not scrutiny. It is simple arrogance on the part of those who can hold us here. Hansard records that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) rose to his feet more than 400 times during that period. There is an unsurprising correlation between his getting to his feet and the hour until which the House was detained.

Many of us want to go much further than the proposals before us tonight. Our experience is that the House does not carry out the most effective possible scrutiny at present. Our constituents do not enjoy following the House because they cannot understand what is going on. Having more time means more time for time wasting. There is much scope for improvement, and our experience is that there is no satisfactory way in which to contribute.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) complained about long holidays. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) asked why we did not vote in the mornings. Many of us would support a different parliamentary year. Many of us would support returning much sooner. Many of us would support a different daily schedule, with an earlier start. Most of us would support the strictest time limits on speeches, from Front and Back Benches alike.

We do not want fewer hours. All of us are hard workers who came here prepared to do our best for our constituents. We want more efficiency and more effectiveness. Programming legislation will offer that. We shall know much more clearly what we are doing and when. It will provide greater focus, enabling us to move modernisation forward.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): Strict time limits on speeches?

Joan Ruddock: I have been interrupted many times and have taken 10 minutes. I propose to stop now.

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The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield talked of the status of Parliament. We can improve that status if we accept the motions and proceed further with modernisation to bring Parliament into the 21st century.

9.28 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I agree with some of the final words spoken by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who quoted the excellent speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) on the status of Parliament. I have become profoundly sad as I have listened to speeches from those on the Labour Benches. Labour Members are the dupes of the Executive. They have been conned into believing that what is being proposed will enhance their status and the effectiveness of the House of Commons, but it will have quite the opposite effect.

I am not one of those who enjoys late nights. I do not believe that our hours are immutable. We have changed the hours of Parliament many times over the centuries. I am not in favour of long speeches about very little, but I profoundly believe that this place has a prime duty to hold the Executive to account, no matter from which party that Executive come.

I was once described as a thorn in the side of the Thatcher Administration.

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