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Sir Patrick Cormack: My right hon. Friend confirms that I was indeed. In being so, I believed that I was fulfilling my prime role as a Back Bencher. On occasions, I could not have done so without resorting to the weapon of time.
When the measure to abolish the Greater London council was being put through by the Thatcher Government, I opposed it because I did not believe that London should be deprived of a strategic authority. I said that we would be landed with something worse in due course and, by Jove, I have been proved right. At that time, I said that we should not take powers to ourselves that we would not wish others to have. Labour Members should ponder on that. They are taking powers to themselves through these measures that they will find extremely uncomfortable when they sit on the Opposition Benches--if a Conservative Government were misguided enough to renew this sort of Sessional Orders.
Programming is one thing and I am not against it. [Interruption.] I am not against it in all circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) makes some good points in his admirable pamphlet on the matter and I can associate myself with much of what he says. In an intervention, I said that if there is to be programming, there also has to be rationing of legislation. The more legislation we have, the less helpful programming is to anyone other than the Executive.
The Modernisation Committee, chaired by a totally honourable Chairman--the Leader of the House--has become the creature of the Government. It has abandoned the principle of consensus in its report. All the other issues that it has put before the House have been based on
However, it was a parliamentary tragedy when the principle of consensus was abandoned to get this proposal before the House before the end of this Session. The sort of programming that we are being offered tonight will give power to one group of people--the Executive.
I have been in the House for 30 years. In that time, the balance has moved inexorably away from Parliament--the legislature--towards the Executive. In the past three years, that process has been accelerated and has diminished the House, making it less effective. More than anything else, that has been responsible for reducing the esteem in which the House is held by constituents of the hon. Member for Deptford, and constituents of mine and of many other hon. Members.
The proposal is inimical to true parliamentary sovereignty, in which I believe. It will concentrate power over legislation entirely in the hands of the Executive. The frank exchanges that took place this afternoon between my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and the Leader of the House demonstrated that. The right hon. Lady said in effect, "We'll discuss matters with the Opposition if they want to talk about it. If not, we'll do it just the same." That was a revealing exchange.
I do not want to make a long speech--I believe in short speeches--but I must say a few words about the ridiculous order on deferred voting. If the Modernisation Committee had proposed that we could vote in the proper way at 9 am the next morning on certain matters debated late at night, I would have considered that a sensible way forward.
This football coupon-type voting on a Wednesday is inimical to our freedom as Back Benchers. The intervening period allows enormous opportunity for the Whips, on both sides of the House, to influence the vote. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Deptford may laugh. She has not been here all that long--she may think she has, but she has not. It is an arrogant laugh. She believes that the proposal she is supporting will somehow make Parliament more family friendly, and, in the process, make it more effective. It will do neither. Whether the hon. Lady likes it or not, she has become a pawn in the hands of the Leader of the House. She has succumbed to the blandishments of the Government and is writing off her powers as a Back Bencher in the process.
All this smoke and mirrors on voting is absurd. Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that he has never seen other Members dashing breathless for a Division, asking the Whips which Lobby they should be--
Sir Patrick Cormack: I was about to ask the hon. Lady if she would give way, Mr. Speaker. I must respond to the point that she made, but I shall probably not have time to give way to the hon. Member for Deptford.
Sir Patrick Cormack: No, I am trying to respond to the inordinately long intervention made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson). It showed that the hon. Lady has completely misunderstood what has been said in the debate. Neither I nor any of my hon. Friends have argued that time is the only weapon, nor that time is the most important factor under discussion. It is a weapon that can and should be used legitimately--albeit sparingly--both by Opposition and Government Back Benchers. I make no apology for the fact that I have used it in government and in opposition.
The effect of the measures will be to increase the stranglehold of the Executive at the expense of the rest of the Members of the House. It is for that reason that I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to vote against the motions.
I speak in favour of the programming of Bills and in favour of the motions introduced by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I was especially interested in the points made by the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), in a fairly waspish speech. She even went so far as to imply that the Conservatives had nothing to do with the
During the 35 years in which the Conservatives held power since the second world war, they made only two constitutional changes of any significance. They introduced the modern form of Select Committees, on which they should be congratulated, and they signed the Maastricht treaty. Apart from that, they have opposed almost every proposal for change. Such opposition is exactly what we have heard tonight from every Conservative Member in the Chamber. They oppose a fairly modest scheme.
My own views reflect some of the points made by my colleagues, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). That will come as no surprise to hon. Members, but we have to start somewhere.
I want to say something about the changes that I have seen in this place since I became a Member in 1987. There has been a variety of substantial changes. We have seen the first woman Speaker; she was also the first working- class Speaker. You, Mr. Speaker, are the first Catholic Speaker since the reformation, and the first not to use the wig. We do not spy "strangers" any more, and we have got rid of the blessed hat, which is great progress. However, none of those changes is of real substance because the major problem is one of credibility. One of the main contributory factors in our lack of credibility is the ridiculous way in which we work.
I have heard Labour and Opposition Members talk about how they behaved in opposition. When I first entered the House in 1987, I was no different from any of my colleagues in opposition. I believed that the best way to oppose the then Government was to waste time by speaking. I was a member of many Committees, and I could bore for Britain. I did not quite reach the dizzy heights of my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) with four hours and 10 minutes, but I operated in exactly the same way. I accepted it as the norm until I became a member of the energy Opposition Front-Bench team.
On the Bill to privatise the electricity industry, I saw constructive opposition for the first time. We decided to prepare our timetable and work to it. We ran the Government ragged. We made sure that they could not keep up with the amendments that we had tabled. We made sure that every important issue that we wanted to have debated was debated.
We have seen nothing from this Conservative Opposition. Everything is done with the sledgehammer of talking us through the night. [Interruption.] I am being urged to complete my speech. Before I finish, I want to include a personal anecdote about the impact of our hours. They have had a serious effect on the way we all function. They have a serious effect on many lives.
I asked the Library today to dig out the figures for the number of Members of the House who have died. Since 1989, 48 Members have died. We have had to cope recently with the death of Donald Dewar. A lot of that death toll is to do with the stress and pressures arising from the occupation that we have all chosen to follow. There are many other names; I will not go through the list. There have been five deaths a year. Only three were not the result of natural causes. That is a serious statement to which we should all have regard.
The sittings of the House may not start until 2.30 pm, but the rest of the world starts work at least five and a half hours earlier. If I am to meet the people whom I need to meet to do my job properly, I have to conform to their working hours. Then I have to be here in the House on most business days until 10.15 pm or later and sometimes through the night, as we have heard from previous speakers.
The culture that we have allowed to develop in the House is unforgiving. We have an ethos which is not very different from the mediaeval joust. For some of us, a joust would be just as brutal and devastating in its consequences. It is time that we changed our working practices to meet the needs of the 21st century and the much increased demands on Members of the House. Victorian rules met Victorian needs. In the 21st century, we need to introduce rules and hours that reflect the demands made of Members today.