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Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is one thing that makes Members of Parliament particularly vocal, and that is matters that affect them personally? Does he not agree that the election of a Speaker affects all 659 hon. Members? It therefore follows that, particularly given the diverse nature of the responses which my hon. Friend has already described, many of those 659 Members will want to make long and detailed contributions to the debate.
Mr. Grieve: I have no difficulty agreeing with my hon. Friend's comments. I am sure that he will agree that we must be careful to ensure that the House is not seen indulging in too much navel gazing. There are affairs of the nation to consider as well as those of regulating the House. I dare say that the public would think it rather odd if we were to devote days and days to discussing how we should elect a Speaker.
Mr. Grieve: He or she is there as the defender of our rights, so it is important that we get right any changes that we decide to implement. It is important that the public should have the impression that there has been reasoned
A point that has often been touched upon is that debate in the Chamber should not involve a short discussion and then a vote to decide who is in the majority. By the process of debate, we should at least reconcile those who may lose in the vote to the decision that the House has taken. That is what parliamentary democracy is all about.
I have outlined the basic principles, so I shall now consider the precise motion that has been placed before us. It is apparent that the matter will come before the House on Thursday 22 March. On an ordinary Thursday, we start early with Question Time. Business questions follow, and there is always the possibility of a statement. The motion proposes that we should conclude the discussion at 4 o'clock. The Minister knows that, because of business questions, it is improbable that we shall start any debate before 1.25 or 1.30 pm. I say this neutrally, but sometimes the allegation is made that the Government make statements either for their own convenience, because they want to indulge in a bit of spin, or because they wish to wreck the business of the House for that day by depriving hon. Members of the opportunity for debate. I am not seeking to suggest that they will do that on this occasion--not at the moment anyway. I merely wish to point out that we are facing a national crisis in agriculture because of foot and mouth disease, so it is perfectly on the cards that, for wholly legitimate reasons, a Minister may wish to come to the House on 22 March to make a statement. That usually leads to a further hour of the House's time being taken up, so the debate on the election of the Speaker may last for no more than an hour and a half. I have to say to the Minister that, on the basis of what I said a few moments ago about the controversial nature of the proposals, an hour and a half is wholly insufficient. I hope that he will take that point in the spirit in which it is intended.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): My hon. Friend is setting out a persuasive critique. Does he agree that the supreme irony of the situation that he has just described is that if what he described happened, we would have less time for a debate on the substantive motion concerning how we should operate in future than is potentially available to us this morning for this preliminary procedural discussion?
Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend is right, although I thought I heard an hon. Member say from a sedentary position that it is not yet morning in parliamentary terms. That is correct. It is still yesterday or, perhaps, today, and we can continue with its being today for a very long time if necessary--sometimes for so long that tomorrow disappears. I do not want to inflict that on the House, but my hon. Friend makes an important point.
If we are to have a debate such as that referred to in the motion, it would be sensible to set the rest of that day aside for that purpose. If there is a possibility that the debate might go short--in 1972, as the Minister pointed out, an hour and five minutes proved sufficient--I am sure that the Government can table a host of matters to be
Mr. Bercow: I am exceptionally grateful to my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way. In view of the importance of the election of a Speaker and the respect that all right hon. and hon. Members feel for that high office, does my hon. Friend agree that, even if it were difficult--and it should not be--to accommodate a proper, lengthy and perhaps leisurely debate on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, no right hon. or hon. Member should object to the notion that we might debate the matter on a sitting Friday? It would, after all, be a one-off.
Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Sitting Fridays are not, on the whole, supposed to interfere with the Government's carriage of their business, so if we were to debate the matter on such a Friday, it could not be suggested that we were putting our priority of navel gazing above the interests of the country at large.
I turn now to another aspect of the problem. I have touched on this, but it bears consideration. At the moment, we do not have the motion that the Government intend to table. We have got the order wrong. We can usually pick up in the Tea Room, the Corridors or elsewhere whether a motion tabled by the Government will command consensus and rapidly identify the issues that are likely to excite hon. Members and make them want to participate in the debate.
Without wishing to stray into the substance of the Procedure Committee's report, and just by way of illustration, I point out that the report contains several proposals. Those on which most hon. Members will focus relate to the system of voting, ballots and their secrecy and whether, at the end, the last two candidates should be presented in the traditional way. However, there are many other little points in the report, and experience suggests that those are points that can sometimes cause as many problems--if not more--as some of the basic issues. I am not clear whether a Government motion would seek to change or regulate the way in which the Speaker is affirmed by royal approval not in the other place, but by Parliament sitting in a single Chamber up the Corridor.
Mr. Grieve: It is a timely reminder, Madam Deputy Speaker. If I am getting carried away, it serves as a warning and illustration to the Minister that some recondite issues may excite hon. Members. Our constitution reflects an important historical perspective and, bearing in mind the nature of society and the role of the House and of Parliament in general, they would want those issues addressed. However, I do not know what the Government are going to table.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): The issue has a direct bearing on the debate. It is impossible to make a judgment about the suitability of the length of time that we will have to debate the issue unless we have a clearer idea about what the Government intend
It is unfortunate that the matter is being discussed at such a late hour, when many right hon. and hon. Members, especially after last night's late sitting, have no doubt decided that the call of their beds takes priority over our business. When the Minister has heard the arguments--I shall listen with care to his response--he may wish to consider withdrawing the motion and presenting it again when the Government's proposals have been tabled. That would allow them to gauge our response. Once they have an impression of our reaction, they will be better placed to decide the time that should be devoted to the motion.
I am sure that the Government take the matter seriously. If they decide that many right hon. and hon. Members want to participate in the debate to express their views and influence others, they may want to consider allowing more time. They may also want to allow amendments to be considered so that there are other options. I know not. I am not trying to complicate the issue; I am simply trying to explain that it could become complicated. If the Government do what I suggest, they may discover that the matter can be dealt with reasonably expeditiously while allowing time for their business to be transacted on the same day and enabling people to go away with the impression that they have had their say and are broadly satisfied with the result.