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Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I urge some caution in the course of action that my right hon. Friend proposes. I can recall several occasions in the previous Parliament when agreement on an unofficial timetable for a Bill was reached through the usual channels. However, it seems that Opposition Whips were not able to control Opposition Back Benchers--[Interruption.] and that often led to time-wasting and very late nights for all of us.
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend will welcome the fact that her proposition that the Opposition Whips were unable to control members of their party was heartily endorsed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. Voluntary agreements are meaningful only if all members of the parties that reach them abide by them and support their Front-Bench spokesmen in such agreements.
Mr. Cook: I will give way to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), but then I must make some progress because I have not even finished answering the question put by the hon. Member for New Forest, West.
Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, on which I am happy to reassure him. The motion endeavours to give effect to paragraphs 4 and 5 of the report. I apologise to the House for the fact that giving effect to the dozen lines of those paragraphs requires so much legal jargon.
I explained to the hon. Member for New Forest, West that the motion contains a provision for the Standing Committee to recommend a different out date, and that under the terms of the motion the Government must table that proposal within five sitting days. The motion contains a further provision; the Standing Committee will propose the length of the remaining stages and the allocation of time within that.
The hon. Member for Macclesfield is right to say that the Programming Sub-Committee that makes the recommendation to the Standing Committee will be chaired by the Chair of the Standing Committee. That will bring an impartial and independent element to the discussion and he or she will be responsible for safeguarding the interests of the Opposition and Back Benchers. I know that the Chairman of Ways and Means takes a particular interest in the important role of the Chairmen of Standing Committees in chairing the Programming Sub-Committees.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) was an excellent member of the usual channels when he and I piloted the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill through Committee. We agreed at the start, with no timetable, that the Bill should come out of Committee six weeks later. It came out exactly on the dot. It would be a more sensible procedure not to timetable debates on Second Reading or in Committee. It is in Committee that omissions and lacunae in Bills are often exposed. It could then be decided whether it was necessary or desirable from the Government's point of view to timetable the remaining stages.
Mr. Cook: In fairness to the House, it is helpful to the House if the Government are transparent and open about their target date for concluding the Committee proceedings. Let us get real. Every Government have always had a target date for the conclusion of Committee stages. I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) will be able to confirm that. The programme motion on Second Reading makes transparent the target date so that every hon. Member--not only the Official Opposition, but Back Benchers and members of the other parties--knows it.
Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): I commend the spirit in which my right hon. Friend is dealing with the points raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It augurs well for what might occur during the rest of the Parliament.
As one who had a PhD in opposition and used to orchestrate during 10 years as Opposition Chief Whip the sort of things that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) gets up to, I must advise my right hon. Friend that we must not be too sanctimonious. Indeed, I know that my right hon. Friend is the last one to be sanctimonious. There were many times when I did not have complete control over my Back Benchers. There were even more times when I pretended not to have control over them and colluded with them in frustrating the Government of the day. Such were the things that went on in this place.
Is not our dilemma that every act of modernisation--I am broadly in favour of what has been done and what is proposed--tends to increase the power of the Executive vis-a-vis Parliament? It is all too easy for Labour Members to want to steamroller all opposition, but we ought to have some consideration because one of these days, not I but some of my colleagues might be in opposition again.
Mr. Cook: I would have appreciated it if sometimes during the 18 years my right hon. Friend had made it clear that he was happy for us to rebel against his instructions. It might have made us easier in our consciences, if not in what we did, if we had been aware of that at the time. I disagree with the conclusion that he draws about the effect of programme motions. They can assist the House in its scrutiny. They enable the House to focus on issues of concern to Back Benchers and Opposition Members, in the full knowledge of what the timetable allows. Members can then resolve to participate in debates on the issues on which they wish to express their views.
At present, under the threat of guillotine or even in the absence of a guillotine, all Government Back Benchers have to be quiet because there is no time for them to speak. The majority of hon. Members are Labour Members. Under a programme motion, when the timetable and the out date are clear, all hon. Members are free to speak on issues of concern to them.
Mr. Hogg: The right hon. Gentleman will remember from his previous experience in the House that interventions are not confined to one. Will he come back to the point that he made earlier that the purpose of timetabling is to enable Back Benchers to identify the main issues? Surely that is not the case. In the first place, the
Mr. Cook: The right hon. and learned Gentleman deludes himself if he imagines that many Back Benchers both in the Chamber just now and outside it would not welcome the provision that programme motions be taken forthwith.
Mr. Grieve: The Leader of the House touched on the fact that one of the areas that will be covered by programme motions is the procedure when Bills come back from the House of Lords. How will the system work and be an improvement on the previous system of crude guillotining? For example, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill enjoyed cross-party support, but we had 666 amendments from the Lords, of which 665 were Government amendments. There was no filibustering, but we had the chance to consider only 80 amendments in the time allocated under the Government's guillotine. One of the direct results was that we had to introduce subsequent legislation to correct the howler in relation to the imprint at the bottom of election literature.
Mr. Cook: A programming motion must reflect the volume of amendments from another place. It can always be updated to take account of that. The Opposition should not pretend that there was a more generous allocation of time for scrutiny when they were in government. In the 1991-92 Session, in their last year in office before the 1992 election, they passed 33 Acts and spent 95 hours on Second Reading, 72 hours for all remaining stages and 696 hours in Standing Committee. In our last year before the 2001 election, we passed 21 Acts. Although that is a much smaller number, they were debated on Second Reading for 110 hours--15 more hours for a fewer number of Acts. The remaining stages took 72 hours--precisely the same as when the Conservatives were in office, although for fewer Bills. The legislation spent 690 hours in Standing Committee, which is less than 1 per cent. less than the time taken in the 1991-92 Session.
By the benchmark that the Conservatives established in office, it is false to say that programming motions result in less time for scrutiny by the House. On the contrary, more time was available, proportionate to the number of Bills considered.