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Mr. McWilliam: We do not seek to ask why Members want to change; if they want to do so, that is fine. The matter has been agreed by all parties. If the hon. Gentleman has a problem with that, he must have a problem with his Whips--he should ask them about it.

Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman sounds like Alfred, Lord Tennyson--

but not, in this case, die--I hope.

My point is important and sound. At this late stage of a Parliament, why have two people decided to change membership on the Committee?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman repeats the argument that he made earlier. I remind him once again of the narrowness of the motion and of the debate.

Mr. Fabricant: I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your guidance. I simply want to make the point that the hon. Member for Crosby has served well on the Committee--especially by promoting engineering both in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall. She has raised questions about the status of chartered engineers and members of the Engineering Council. It is most unfortunate that she is not in the House tonight to say why she is standing down. She has provided an excellent service.

Mr. Bercow: I echo what my hon. Friend says about the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), but does not he agree that perhaps an even more salient question is why the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), who is indeed a distinguished academic, is not present to participate in, or at least observe, the proceedings of the debate about the proposal that he be added to the Committee? Why is he not here?

Mr. Fabricant rose--

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The House is perfectly entitled to debate the change of membership of a Committee whether or not the Members concerned are present.

Mr. Fabricant: Of course you are absolutely right, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham is saying that perhaps there is a little arrogance in the motion, in that the two people concerned are not here tonight. But I do perfectly understand--

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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps I could put it to the hon. Gentleman that that really is irrelevant to the motion that we are discussing.

Mr. Fabricant: I think the point is that the motion concerns the behaviour of two individual Members or, if one likes, the service that they will perform on this Committee, which is a Committee of the House, and it would have been interesting, had they been present, to determine what motivation there was for one to leave and for the other to replace them, particularly at this late stage in the Parliament. [Interruption.] It is also a late stage in the evening, and I can see that Ministers on the Treasury Bench are particularly concerned that--

Mr. Keith Bradley (Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household) indicated dissent.

Mr. Fabricant: They are not concerned that this motion is passed quickly. There is some confusion because of these sedentary interventions from those on the Treasury Bench. Some are saying that they want this motion passed, some are not, and I am a little confused on that point.

The hon. Member for Crosby has provided good service. I hope that she will continue to provide service on the Engineering Council. Just as a very brief aside--

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Once again, I must remind the hon. Member just how narrow is this particular debate. Will he please confine his remarks to it?

Mr. Fabricant: The motion reads:

but as the House authorities are allowing an hour for debate, presumably with the agreement of the Speaker, presumably there is some scope to discuss the merits of the two individuals concerned; otherwise, I cannot see how an hour, or even a minute, can be allowed for any particular area of debate.

Mr. Keith Bradley indicated assent.

Mr. Fabricant: I see that the Deputy Chief Whip fervently agrees with me on this issue.

In conclusion, unless anyone cares to intervene on me on this point, I will not disagree with the motion, as the hon. Member for Blaydon has said that both individuals have agreed to the change. However, it would have been nice if either of them had been present. It would have been interesting to know why this is happening at such a late stage in the Parliament, unless we are going to find out that it is not a late stage in the Parliament, and that the Prime Minister is announcing that there will be a general election in May--May 2002.

Question put and agreed to.


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Business of the House

12.40 am

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): I beg to move,

(1) at the sitting on 22nd March the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on any Motion in the name of Margaret Beckett relating to Election of a Speaker not later than Four o'clock, and such Questions shall include the Questions on any amendment selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; and
(2) if proceedings on any such Motion have not been completed before Four o'clock, the Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means for consideration at that hour may be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours after it has been entered upon.

The motion simply ensures that next Thursday-- 22 March--the House can reach a decision on a procedure for electing a Speaker. The Government intend very shortly to put down Standing Orders that would implement the Procedure Committee's recommendations.

I am grateful to the Committee for its report and recommendations. A good deal of thought and work has gone into the report. Next week, colleagues will have a discussion on that report; tonight's motion just sets out the framework for that discussion.

Members will note that the business motion will also allow the questions to be put on any amendment selected by the Speaker. The motion will give the House an opportunity to deal with any such amendments. It may assist the House this evening if I say that an amendment will be tabled to give Members a choice between an open and a secret ballot for Speaker, as recommended by the Procedure Committee.

It may also interest Members to learn that, back in 1972, when the House agreed the current Standing Orders on the election of a Speaker, the debate lasted for an hour and five minutes. Even though, as we age, we are doubtless more garrulous, I do not think that the time suggested tonight for the debate is unreasonable. I am pleased that the House is to have an early opportunity to discuss the Procedure Committee's report.

12.40 am

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Although I welcome the opportunity that the House will be given to discuss the election of a Speaker, I have to tell the Minister that I have serious reservations about the amount of time allocated to the debate, and I hope that I may now have the opportunity to develop them a little.

The Minister said that one hour and five minutes was spent discussing the matter in 1972, but one need only look at the Procedure Committee's report to understand what a revolution in our affairs has occurred since then. The Procedure Committee makes it clear that the changes made in 1972 were simply intended to bring some order to a system that had previously been governed by no regulatory mechanism whatever. Indeed, the Clerk, rather than the Father of the House, took the Chair before that date, and there was a free for all, without Standing Orders of any kind. I am sure that the Minister will find it easy to agree that what actually happened in 1972 was that a decision was taken simply to determine, by Standing Order, what should happen in future.

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As we know, at the most recent election of the Speaker, it became fairly apparent that the system that had been set up in 1972, which had previously led to only one contested election before last year's, took a very great deal of time to go through. Not only did it take a long time to go through, but a large number of hon. Members expressed widespread dissatisfaction with the entire system. That is why the Procedure Committee decided to report on the matter. Indeed, it produced an extremely useful and interesting report, which repays careful study.

About 130 Members replied when the Procedure Committee sought our views, but the diversity of opinion expressed in the replies to the questionnaires that were sent out is simply colossal. It covers the full spectrum of choices that individual Members might wish to have. Given that this is completely non-party political matter, I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is apparent that no consensus on how best to proceed exists in those submissions.

I do not intend to consider the report this evening; that is not the purpose of this debate or of the motion. However, one has only to consider the diversity of views to understand that there must be enough time for those diverse views to be expressed. I am sure that the Minister will also agree that there is always a danger that when a Government, however well-intentioned, table a motion that ultimately expresses their view, a large number of hon. Members will be dissatisfied not only with that motion but with any amendment to it that the Minister says we shall have an opportunity to discuss. Apart from anything else, we do not even know exactly what is proposed for the implementation of the Procedure Committee's suggestions.

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