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Mr. Pearson: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the programming of Bills motion, paragraph (2)(b) of order B and paragraph (3)(b) of order C give you the power to appoint up to eight members of the Programming Committee and seven members of the Programming Sub-Committees. Will you appoint members according to the current balance of political parties, or will you ensure that no party has an overall majority and the Chairman of Ways and Means has a casting vote?
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Contrary to the opinion of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), the Minister and I decided to confine our remarks to 10 minutes each, but the programming of this debate seems to have gone astray, which is perhaps inauspicious for future agreements.
This has been a fascinating debate, but a depressing one. It is clear why the Modernisation Committee was not able to reach agreement. There is a massive philosophical difference between the approach taken by Conservative Members and that taken by Labour Members.
My right hon. Friends the Members for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) all made powerful speeches about respecting the traditions of the House and about the ability of the Opposition to oppose. The impression conveyed by the speeches of Labour Members was that they were matters to which they accorded very little account. Indeed, many of them gave the impression that they were converts, had had
The issue is important, because we are discussing the destruction of convention. [Interruption.] I hear the word "Good", but the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) made the point that the House established its reputation in the 19th century as an independent Chamber because of its ability to debate. Ultimately, that was because of the then Governments' willingness to allow debates to take place. There was little difference between then and now in that Members of Parliament made perorations late at night. Many Members then were similar to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and saw themselves as performing a role, and they were respected by the Government for that. Members took the view that, if they did not carry out that role, proper parliamentary government was not possible and that if parliamentary government was not respected, the decisions taken in the House would not be respected by those outside who were adversely affected by them.
I have listened to Labour Members and they seem to suggest that if one simply has a vote and a majority, one can do whatever one likes. The consequences of that have been well reflected in the past few weeks when people driving lorries have parked them and protested outside Parliament because this place has ceased to command respect as it is not where difficult issues can be discussed. That is not more important but it is as important as our ability to scrutinise legislation properly. The measure tends against our ability to scrutinise properly and it is clearly against our ability to be regarded as a place where difficult issues can be aired and people with different points of view can be respected.
I shall try to be brief to give the Minister time to respond, but I come now to the issue of timetabling. Conservative Members are perfectly prepared to consider the possibility of trying to arrange for timetabling. Indeed, the minority report that was produced in the Modernisation Committee recommended that we should try to arrange timetabling as much as possible. However, what is the point of the House surrendering something that Back-Bench Members can use to have an impact in holding the Government to account when the Government have not made a single concession towards giving up power to allow timetabling to take place?
We can have timetabling but, under these measures, if the Government decide that they want to alter a timetabling motion and want to behave in the way they did on the passage of the legislation--bad legislation, badly passed--after the Omagh bombing, they can do whatever they like. The Government have made no concessions either to a Speaker's Conference or to any other mechanism that would give the House an independent voice on how timetabling could take place.
We remain completely at the Government's mercy, and, having listened to the contributions from many Labour Members, it is clear that we will not find among them the independent voices that alone will prevent the Government from abusing their powers in that respect. That is the central reason why the House should reject the motion on timetabling. It is not as though there is no need for sensible timetabling or for a review of the hours that the House might sit--although there is no mention of that in the report.
The hon. Member for Deptford said that she wanted Back Benchers to have more opportunities to participate in questions to Ministers, but nothing in the report will provide that. When will time be made available if the Government do not volunteer to review the timetable? When, in late-night business, which I shall address in more detail in a moment, will there be opportunities to hold the Government to account?
The timetable motion is a device by which Members surrender power to the Government. It gives the Government an extra ratchet that will allow them to say in future that the convention that Members are given time to discuss business went out long ago. Far from our benefiting from such motions, we will find that the Government will use their existing powers to take more time for discussion away from us whenever they want to.
On deferred votes, I think that we are moving into the land of fantasy. Late at night we consider, for the most part, secondary legislation. As a member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, I know that if ever anything is poorly considered in the House, it is secondary legislation. Late at night is the one time that we have for proper debate of such legislation, which sometimes deals with highly contentious issues. I am thinking of a number of Northern Ireland orders, on which there may have been consensus between Government Members and the official Opposition, but Members from Northern Ireland held very different views.
Mr. Grieve: Well, precisely. Attendance will be much more difficult for Northern Ireland Members, some of whom have other duties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, if they have to come to this House for debates and then return on another day to vote.
My hon. Friends have made the valid point that separating the process of decision making from the voting process, especially for debates of only one and a half hours, will degrade the status of the House. It will remove the chance that one's vote could be influenced when matters are fresh in one's mind, and it will prevent the Chamber from being a focus for any informed or sensible debate in which people can be influenced by what is said.
One thing that I have learned since I came to the House is that if one bothers to spend six hours on the Benches listening to a debate, one learns an enormous amount, usually from one's opponents. The central and most critical point about the parliamentary process is that it makes what is otherwise unpalatable acceptable by the process of debate. That is being attacked by the motions, not because modernising and improving our procedures is not good, but because we are approaching the issues from completely the wrong angle.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): This is, of course, a House matter, and colleagues will decide individually how we should proceed. During this important debate it has become clear that there is no unanimity of view; indeed, my hon. Friends have made it clear that they will vote differently. I welcome that--it is healthy.
The proposals are not new. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made clear at the outset, they have a long parliamentary history. In 1985, the Procedure Committee recommended that Bills be programmed in Standing Committee, and even at later stages. Jopling confirmed that position in 1992. At the beginning of this Parliament, the Modernisation Committee recommended programming, and most recently, both the Hansard Society and the Norton commission have suggested it.
Programming provides something for everyone: the Government know when they will get their business through, should the House agree it; the Opposition have the power to determine the terms of debate and to choose what will be dealt with in prime time; and all of us get some certainty about our working hours. Being able to plan leads to better use of our time and greater efficiency of our work.
The amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst are designed totally to undermine the Modernisation Committee's proposals. The Government's motions allow a reasonable period for debate on the proposed timetable: three quarters of an hour for the main programme motion and half an hour for motions on the details proposed by the programming committee or sub-committee. It is true that the allocation is not as generous as that, in theory, for a guillotine, but unlike the guillotine, debate on the programme motion will not eat into time for debating the substantive business. Amendment (d) would reverse such a process: three hours would be spent debating the programme motion, and many of us would spend our time in the Smoking Room knitting our socks.
I should say directly to my hon. Friends that the proposed Sessional Orders on which we are to vote shortly are indeed Sessional Orders. There will be an opportunity to review how they are used, and we shall see how hon. Members on both sides of the House use them. For my part, I hope to see a consensus and a positive use of our time. Just as the House is tonight reviewing its procedures, there will be the opportunity to do so again in 12 months' time.
I turn briefly to the issue of much controversy: deferred Divisions. It would be possible to hold deferred Divisions in the normal way on a Wednesday, as set out in amendment (d). Yes, the traditional way has its adherents, but it is important to remember the commitment that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made when she said that we have made it clear that the stand-alone issues to go to sittings on Wednesdays will be relatively uncontentious. I know that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) focused on that point.
If the House decides to implement the reforms, we shall have much more orderly processing of business. It will be appreciated that the Government will have to introduce legislation in better order and perhaps in less quantity. Once we are able to predict the amount of legislation, we might be able to look at longer-term issues. We will be able to look, for example, at the timetable for the recess dates and the parliamentary calendar. I cannot promise that all that will flow from the experiment, but I can promise that it will be impossible to do that if we do not proceed with these issues tonight. I therefore hope that my hon. Friends will support the Modernisation Committee's proposals.