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6.40 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I, too, welcome you to your new position, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am loth to start a speech by paraphrasing Bill Clinton, but here goes. He said that, in the United States of America, the people had voted and spoken, but it would take a little time to work out what they had said. In this debate, by contrast, the House has spoken, but, because the Government know what it has said, it will not be allowed to vote. I do not see this as party political. Nearly 250 Members of Parliament have signed early-day motion 476, the vast majority from the Government Back Benches.

I may not have time to refer to all today's speeches, but I enjoyed the debate immensely and some of the speeches were very good. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said that the House is dying on its feet and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said that it is in grave danger of losing its rationale and must think of some other role. They are both Government Members and they are both absolutely right.

The membership of the Liaison Committee reads like a roll call of the great and the good, plus one or two hopefuls for that accolade. It contains a wealth of

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experience in the House. We have heard much of that from the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). I congratulate him and his Committee on an excellent report. It has been said that one of the reasons we cannot vote on it today is that we have not had enough time to consider it, but it has been out for eight months and the Government commented on it six months ago, so we are hardly rushing to judgment.

It is, however, right to give the report proper deliberation. It is timely and comes at a time when journalists are writing about how Parliament has changed. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) says that we must find a new role for it but, irrespective of our judgment of what the role of Parliament and the House of Commons has been, we can all agree that the changes suggested in the report are worth considering. I am not saying that we should adopt them all, but it is right for us to have the opportunity, hopefully in the near future, to say which of them we should take on board to strengthen the House of Commons.

The Opposition day debate on 13 July rehearsed the arguments well and clearly demonstrated the desire of hon. Members of all parties to strengthen Parliament. The fire for strengthening Parliament burns brightly among some Government Back Benchers, but not so brightly--indeed, it is flickering badly--among members of the Executive. This is all about bringing the Executive to account. That is a vital role for both Opposition and Government Back Benchers.

Like many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I break out in a cold sweat when I hear about changes that are to take place under the guise of modernisation. We all know what modernisation means. It is a euphemism for streamlining the House so that a quantity of legislation can be got through as quickly as possible. The quality of that legislation does not matter any more, and adding value is not deemed so important. As a result, we have longer recesses, truncated days, and timetabled or guillotined legislation.

I am not in favour of sitting through the night. I was elected in 1992, and was here for the deliberations on the Maastricht legislation, some of which went on through the night. Probably enough midnight oil was burned during those proceedings to heat a small city, but I should prefer to find ways to improve the strength of Parliament. Talking through the night will not do that, but neither will the changes made so far.

For example, last Tuesday we debated the separation of votes and debates. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) noted, that change that did not receive much deliberation, but was voted on none the less.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove) indicated dissent.

Mr. Evans: The Minister's Parliamentary private secretary, the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin), is trying to make a sedentary intervention. I wish that he would keep quiet, as we are talking about the ability of Back Benchers to have their say. That is the change that we want implemented, but the Leader of the House said that we could not vote on the Select Committee report that is at the centre of this debate.

The right hon. Lady said that there had not been proper time for discussion of the report, but few of the changes that it contains are revolutionary: they are, rather,

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evolutionary. The introduction of Select Committees in 1979 was a good idea, and they strengthened Parliament. We must build on that innovation.

I have served on three Select Committees. I was a member of the former Transport Select Committee with Robert Adley, who could be an absolute pain in the side of the Government of the day. We miss him. I also served on the Select Committee on Public Administration. I was asked to do so because the Whips were desperate. I enjoyed my time as a member of that Committee, and I hope that I contributed to its work, but we know that appointments can be a problem with some Committees.

I found serving on Select Committees a rewarding role. I am glad that I have never had to go before a Select Committee. That can be a harrowing experience, but Parliament is all about analysing, scrutinising and dissecting what is going on. Select Committees can be far more effective in that regard than the Chamber, and we must look for ways to improve that situation.

The recommendations in "Shifting the Balance" and in the Norton commission report build on what needs to happen to ensure that better legislation leaves the House. The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne spoke eloquently about some of the changes that he thinks need to be made.

The proposal that Select Committees be given extra staff is absolutely right. I recall from my time as a Select Committee member that we needed more staff and resources to facilitate our work. I do not want to enter the debate about whether Chairmen ought to be paid an allowance, but their work should be recognised. That work can be very time consuming for those who do the job properly.

The report also recommends that hon. Members who do not turn up for hearings should be thrown off Select Committees. That is a jolly good idea. Any Members who do not pull their weight in Committees should make way for others who will make a difference.

I enjoyed many of the speeches in the debate, none more so than that made by the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). He said that he was a member of the Joint Committee on Consolidation of Bills, Etc. I wonder whether that was a punishment for him, or for the other members of that Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) is, like the hon. and learned Member for Medway, a self-styled maverick. He is very independent. He is a relatively near neighbour of mine, and I know that people in his constituency who would vote Labour anywhere else vote for my hon. Friend because he is a person of independent spirit. He told the House about how the Whips treated him when he was Chairman of the Health Committee, a post from which he was ultimately turfed out. Perhaps that could be called the Winterton of discontent.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich --a great defender of Parliament--put it correctly when she said, "Put it to the House." That is all we are asking. We have a commitment from the Prime Minister that this matter would be given time in the House and that Members would be given a free vote. Irrespective of what the Leader of the House says, I have read the quotes from the Prime Minister on 13 July; what he said was quite clear, and it is incredibly difficult to twist it. It is one of the few straight answers that he has ever given to a straight question.

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A lot of work has gone into the report; let us not put it on the back burner. The Government love timetabling; let us have a timetable for these recommendations. When will we have the second debate? When will we have substantive motions put before the House on free votes so that this House finally can have its say?

6.51 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): First, I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who anticipated being here for the wind-up. Clearly, she has been unavoidably delayed.

Unlike the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), I always thought that this was going to be a lively debate. It is clear that there is a difference of view between the Committee and the Government, as expressed by a number of Committee members tonight. I cannot pretend that divisions do not exist; they do. It is easy to concentrate on the divisions and the places where the Government and the Committee do not agree.

I want to sketch out areas where there is agreement between us, because there is a great deal of agreement, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said. Those agreements have sometimes been obscured by the big issues that divide us.

The Government could not agree more that

as the report points out. I wholeheartedly endorse the statements in paragraph 4:

I agree even more wholeheartedly that the system

I was particularly impressed with paragraph 58, which states:

The difference between the Government and Back Benchers centres on whether reforms would increase the Committees effectiveness or diminish it, and whether they would foster constructive co-operation or undermine it. The Government's position has been clearly set out and was commented upon tonight by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. The Liaison Committee could, and is likely to, take on some of the duties that it identified for the Select Committee panel. We have no problem with that. We welcome steps to spread best practice among Select Committees--and some of the practice is extremely good.

One of the examples of best practice that the Committee identifies is the examination of treaties. We have undertaken to send treaties to the relevant Select Committees and we will normally provide a debate on treaties of major importance if the Select Committee concerned and the Liaison Committee so request.

Another example of best practice--referred to by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells)--concerned the scrutiny of draft legislation. The

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Government have undertaken that, in general, we will give Select Committees first refusal of Bills falling within their remit. The constraints on the production of draft legislation have been explained and the Liaison Committee welcomed that part of our response. However, I hope that in time the Government will produce more and better draft legislation.

Another example of best practice is the systematic monitoring of action on recommendations. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove mentioned that. Committees have begun this work, and a letter was sent from Sir Richard Wilson's office reminding Departments that the Government have undertaken to assist Committees in follow-up inquiries.

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