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Mr. Cash: The hon. Gentleman made an interesting reference to a late 19th-century Session. He will of course recall that the former distinguished Clerk of the House, Sir Edward Fellowes, made the point that that autumn Session was devoted exclusively to transferring the rules and powers of the Speaker to the Executive--in effect, the Whips. In 1969, or whenever Sir Edward wrote his book, he said that, at that moment, the power of Back Benchers and Parliament was reduced. Parliament has not regained its strength since.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in the past 25 or 30 years, the situation has got progressively worse and that this is the time for Parliament to get it right? It would be a disorganised hypocrisy for the Leader of the House not to do so.
Mr. Fisher: I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, who is right to link the problem to that period and to the essays and contributions to the history of the House of the former Clerk of the House, Sir Edward Fellowes.
We have got to find a third and better way--[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] I agree that programme motions could easily be abused by this Government or a future Government and could severely restrict the ability of the House to hold any Government to account. However, arrangements that we had in the recent past were no good either, and there will be no chance to improve scrutiny in the House unless we compensate Parliament and the
Mr. Swayne: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that not only are we taking time from the Opposition via such motions but we are giving the Government a powerful time-management tool, which will be used most brutally when there is dissent from Labour Members? Debate is arranged so that a Government trustee will take up the available time to agree at length with the Government, to the exclusion of the dissenting voices of the hon. Gentleman's own colleagues?
Mr. Fisher: It is not yet clear whether the motions will improve the scrutiny that Parliament can apply to legislation. Nobody participating in our debate has addressed the valid point made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House--that the crucial weapon is not time but the quality of argument. How do we provide Parliament and the Opposition--indeed, all Members of Parliament--with the opportunity to focus on the quality of argument before legislation is introduced, while it is being introduced and when it has been properly considered? We should consider how to get that quality instead of being seduced by the idea that spending a lot of time on legislation improves scrutiny, because it does not.
Mr. Forth: It is difficult to give any credence to the hon. Gentleman's case about the quality of argument when members of his Government, including those on the Front Bench and in the Modernisation Committee, introduced the device of deferred Divisions which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) pointed out, has divided and separated argument from voting. How can we give any credence to the assertion that the quality of argument will change hearts and minds and, perhaps, votes in the House, if someone who has never had a chance to hear the argument or--who knows?--even read it is expected to cast a vote in one of those peculiar deferred Divisions?
Mr. Fisher: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on many aspects of this matter, but his obsessive, conspiratorial arguments against deferred Divisions rather miss the point. I take the point of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) that, in an ideal world, the vote follows the debate in quick succession, but the worry about deferred Divisions is much less significant than the one about a new set of programme motions that are not compensated for by other methods of improving the quality of scrutiny in the House.
I shall make three quick suggestions. First, the Government should always introduce Bills a long time before Second Reading so that there is ample time for discussion by interested groups. Secondly, we should look again at the Special Standing Committee procedure, so that such Committees can take evidence from interested groups before a Bill goes into Committee. Thirdly, we should have much less legislation in every Session so that there is not so much time pressure.
Mr. Shepherd: Quality of argument is related to time, and the amount of time available for debate is entirely in the hands of the Government. The Opposition's objections result from experience. The Bill that became the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 has been mentioned. Liberal Democrat Members opposed every guillotine imposed on that Bill.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) spoke about rational alternative schemes. I would love to engage in a debate on such possibilities, but we have to address and vote on the motion before the House.
Mr. Fisher: I seldom disagree with the hon. Gentleman on matters to do with the House or the constitution, but I do not agree with what he has just said. I shall try to demonstrate that a useful contribution can be made in a short time. I shall sit down forthwith when I have made the points that I want to make.
I do not agree with the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) that the quality of an argument or debate depends on the time that is available for it. All hon. Members can speak much more concisely, briefly and in a way that holds the House's attention so that points can be made more quickly. I do not think that the quality of debate or scrutiny is reduced when contributions from Back-Bench Members are restricted to 10 minutes. On the contrary: such a time limit focuses minds.
Mr. Bercow: I understand the vantage point from which the hon. Gentleman approaches the matter, and his general principle is that the maximisation of time is not necessary for the effective scrutiny of legislation. However, does he accept that it is at least reasonable to observe that, when the Government insist on a programme
However, Oppositions have often been guilty of hindering that scrutiny. The first Standing Committee to which I belonged was the one considering the Bill to privatise British Telecom. My colleague and friend Mr. John Golding told me how to operate in Standing Committee. We kept that Committee going for more than three months, thinking that we were doing a brave, noble and determined thing. It was an example of machismo politics, and it was quite understandable when the then Government guillotined the Bill after three months, saying, "This is ridiculous; enough is enough."
As a result of our tactics, most of the Bill was never discussed in the Standing Committee. With the benefit of 18 years of hindsight, I now think that our opposition--in which I believed totally at the time--was thoroughly misguided. British Telecom has probably performed better than when it was in public hands. However, parts of the Bill were never scrutinised. It is an insult to the public and the House when such important legislation can go through in that way.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I have one simple question for my hon. Friend. Had that Bill been guillotined in the way proposed today, is he certain that the elements that were not scrutinised would have been looked at? Would all the drafting have been improved? Would all the clauses have been debated? I have considerable reservations about that.