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Mrs. Browning: The reference is presumably to Members for whom it is convenient to attend only on a Wednesday afternoon. How has the Prime Minister's voting record improved since deferred voting?
Mr. Cook: The hon. Lady can certainly pursue that matter with me and I will happily write and advise her. I must confess--this may be a failing on my part--that I cannot share with her the voting record of every one of the 659 Members of this House, including the Prime Minister.
I draw the hon. Lady's attention, however, to the vote on 19 December on child support. In the deferred Division on that vote, 522 Members voted aye and only five voted no. If we had not had the deferred Division arrangement on that occasion those five Members would have kept more than 500 here until midnight to record their view. As a result of the deferred Division, those five Members were able to express their view and the Members who opposed them could also all take part in the vote, when many of them would not have been able to do so had it not been for that arrangement.
It is very difficult not to reach an interim conclusion that deferred Divisions have suited the interests of hon. Members and enabled many more of them to take part. [Interruption.] I remind the Opposition Members who are
The other motion provides for the continuation of the experiment with programme motions. The Modernisation Committee twice recommended doing so in the previous Session. On the first occasion, it did so by consensus, but I fully concede that it did so on the second occasion without the support of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and another Conservative Member. It is worth recalling that when the Modernisation Committee first, by consensus, recommended programming motions, it explicitly did so because it believed that they would improve the House's capacity to scrutinise legislation.
Let us be honest and realistic. Before programming, Governments of both colours--certainly including the Government who preceded us in office for 18 years--got their legislation by guillotine: a crude device, by which the first half dozen clauses in a Bill might be debated at great length and, frankly, with a lot of time wasting in the process, with the result that there was enforced silence on subsequent clauses. That does not tend towards the effective scrutiny of the whole Bill and of Government legislation. That is why the Modernisation Committee recommended programming and said in its report that it was doing so because it would benefit Opposition parties and Back Benchers, who would have a greater opportunity to debate and vote on the issues of most concern to them.
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): I should like to try to solicit an assurance from my right hon. Friend. As he knows, until a few weeks ago, I was part of the usual channels. I guess that I am now part of the unusual channels. I had the privilege of whipping five major Bills through the House for the Government. On each occasion, I managed to reach an agreement with the Opposition Whips on timetabling in Committee and on Report and Third Reading, and I think that that worked very successfully. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Government attach timetable motions to Bills only when they cannot secure an agreement with the Opposition?
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend asks a question that I was asked at business questions last week by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who invited me to show good will by not programming every Bill. As I told him at the time, good will has to be a two-way street, and it is sometimes not easy to find that good will or common sense. Indeed, there was a classic case in the previous Parliament, when the Sea Fishing Grants (Charges) Act 2000--an unobjectionable, even tedious measure--took longer to be considered on the Floor of the House during its remaining stages than was taken in Committee, thus prompting a guillotine.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) rose--
Mr. Cook: Let me finish the point. [Interruption.] We had several hours' debate on the Sea Fishing Grants (Charges) Act 2000 and I do not propose to reopen the matter. Although I would not necessarily expect to carry the hon. Gentleman with me in a spirit of consensus,
Mr. Swayne: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Cook: No, I will not. The Homelessness Bill will be the first Bill to receive its Second Reading next week. May I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) and the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire that it is not our intention to move a programme motion on the Second Reading of that Bill? It is a short Bill and similar clauses were debated in full in the previous Parliament. It is not particularly contentious. Indeed, it has support in all parties. That will be a fair opportunity to test whether the good will exists to enable serious scrutiny of Bills without programme motions, rather than frivolous time wasting. I assure my hon. Friend that if the good will exists to proceed by agreement and consensus, without a programme motion, we can renew that experiment on a future occasion.
Mr. Cook: I give way to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), in the interests of his own health.
Mr. Swayne: Will the right hon. Gentleman abandon the practice, which was common when the experiment began in the previous Parliament, of publishing the programme motion before the Government have even heard the Second Reading debate? It was absurd and insulting that the Government could decide what the outcome of the programme motion should be without actually having tested the opinion of the House or found out what issues would be raised on Second Reading. Good will would be generated if the right hon. Gentleman were to abandon that practice.
Mr. Cook: I am very glad to hear the hon. Gentleman's last sentence, because I think that I can help him. The effect of our motion on programming would indeed be to introduce a programme motion on Second Reading--I shall explain why in a moment--but it also introduces an innovation: in response to the Modernisation Committee recommendation, the Standing Committee considering a Bill may recommend a later out date than that set at the time of Second Reading.
Under the motion on programming that the House is invited to consider, if the Standing Committee makes a recommendation, the Government will be obliged to table that recommendation, which will be taken forthwith. However, if the Government reject the Standing Committee recommendation and table a different out date, it will be debatable. That would give the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) an opportunity to address the House at length, which is a strong incentive to the Government to accept the Standing Committee recommendation and deal with it forthwith.
I can respond to the concern expressed by the hon. Member for New Forest, West by saying that if those dealing with the Bill conclude that the out date set at Second Reading is unreasonable, it can be changed by a
Mr. Hogg: The Standing Committee will be dominated by the Government.
Mr. Cook: The right hon. and learned Gentleman appears to challenge the fact that the Standing Committee will have a Government majority. I can do nothing about the fact that the Government have a majority. Indeed, if I were to do so, it would be an affront to parliamentary democracy because it would not only deny the Government their policy, but deny the will of the majority of the House of Commons.
Mr. Cook: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike).
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): I understand why my right hon. Friend refers to good will and moving in that direction. I have considered such matters seriously for several years and have been involved in the modernisation process since it began. Despite what the official Opposition or any other party may say, they can destroy good will at the drop of a hat. We must ensure that legislation makes sensible progress and that all the clauses of a Bill are scrutinised. From day one, the Modernisation Committee's objective has been to introduce sensible programme motions that allow debates on all the clauses that need to be debated and opposition from either side of the House to be considered properly.
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend expresses the view, which is held by several hon. Members, not just those on the Government Benches, that every Bill should be programmed. I am willing to attempt the experiment to discover what happens when we do not programme a Bill, but I agree with him that not only good will but discipline and self-restraint are required from all hon. Members if the House is to carry out its task of scrutiny.