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Mr. Fisher: I wonder whether my hon. Friend meant to say, "Had that Bill not been guillotined," because it was in fact guillotined. However, even if it had not been so guillotined, it is possible that we would not have made progress. We had got hardly one third of the way through what was a long and complicated Bill.
Mr. Fisher: The Bill was not guillotined in the manner set out in the proposals before the House today, but it was ruthlessly guillotined. As I said, I now sympathise with that guillotine, and believe that the then Government were right to be impatient with the rather crude tactics employed by the then Opposition. We did not do justice to the Bill, and we did not allow the Standing Committee to do justice to an important piece of legislation. My point is that Oppositions can constrict debate as much as Governments.
I agree that Special Standing Committees should be used more often, but only if they are allowed to come to some conclusion. They should be required to produce a report to the Government, containing recommendations about whether proposals in legislation will achieve what they are intended to achieve.
I have detained the House long enough. The thrust of my remarks is clear, and it is that we are getting the balance wrong. I do not see how the motions before us will improve scrutiny, although they will make business and the House more orderly.
Mr. Grieve: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government cannot impose orderliness on the programming of Lords amendments? There will be no Programming Committee to deal with Lords amendments, for which the mechanism will be exactly the same as the old guillotine. Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that that must be the interpretation at which one arrives after a detailed reading of the motions' texts?
Mr. Fisher: I share the hon. Gentleman's worries in that regard, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will clarify how Lords amendments will be handled. What is the point in having a second Chamber if we cannot consider the amendments that it sends to us?
However, the crucial question is whether the programme motions will improve scrutiny of legislation and Government business. I do not think that they will. There is nothing wrong with greater orderliness, but we are not getting right the balance between the responsibility of hon. Members of all parties to scrutinise legislation and the Government's absolute right to introduce the legislation that they want and to have it introduced according to the proper cycle.
I do not believe that the Government's right not to have their legislation obstructed means that the same legislation cannot be amended, but there is always a tension between those two possibilities. I do not think that the motions before us today improve the balance. I hope that we will return to these matters during this Parliament, as they lie at the heart of why hon. Members are here, and of what we do here.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), whose contribution lasted only 18 minutes yet was more thoughtful and provoked more sensible exchanges than what went before. I am grateful to him.
However, I draw the House's attention to the Modernisation Committee's first report of the 1997-98 Session. It contains an excellent chart that shows how the scrutiny of legislation can, under the existing Standing Orders, be undertaken in a number of different ways. If those options were taken up, there is no doubt that the legislation emerging from the House would be improved. The report contains some other suggestions for enhancing those different options.
The House faces some very important matters. The motions before us do not offer a panacea. The proposals do not amount to a magic wand that will do everything necessary to improve the way in which the House does its job. However, in a modest way and with good will, which has already been mentioned, they can make improvements.
Let us consider the context of the proposals and much of the discussion in the Chamber since the general election. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) said earlier that the fall in turnout should worry every Member of Parliament. I read an excellent Library briefing on turnout, and discovered that, when I was first elected in February 1974, the national turnout was 78.8 per cent. In my constituency, which was then called Bodmin, it was 83.3 per cent. This year, the national figure has dropped to 59.4 per cent., and even in the great constituency of North Cornwall, where we take politics seriously, it was down to 63.8 per cent. That is a 20 per cent. difference in a relatively short political lifetime. If the trend continues, it will be disastrous. In that context, this afternoon's debate is very important.
How do we rediscover Parliament's ability to demonstrate to the nation that it is the place where we conduct our business in an orderly manner? Scrutiny of Executive action is as important as that of legislation. In that respect, the Modernisation Committee's proposals have been successfully realised in Westminster Hall. A Minister has to attend proceedings and explain a specific part of the appropriate Department's responsibility. That is an important demonstration to the country of the way in which we do our job properly. The media have not picked that up, but that is another story for another occasion.
Mr. Hogg: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are held in such low esteem partly because individual Members are not seen to be expressing their views, and are perceived as creatures of a party? That, perhaps more than any other factor, has done most to lower the House's standing.
Mr. Tyler: I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He may recall that I once proposed a motion, which stated that the power of the party had increased, was increasing and should be diminished. It reflected the famous Dunning motion of the 1780s. However, I recall that the right hon. and learned Gentleman went into the opposing Lobby. All sinners repent eventually.
All parties have an important job to do in demonstrating that we approach the business of Parliament freely. That business has three purposes, and comprises scrutinising legislation, scrutinising Executive activity and representing
Mr. Salter: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that hon. Members who can scarcely be described as lickspittles have been present throughout the debate? They have occasionally expressed their views in defiance of their party. However, many choose not to do so at 2 am. What is wrong with that?
Mr. Tyler: I shall deal with that point later. The debate is the first opportunity for me to declare that I am no longer a member of the usual channels; I am no longer my party's Chief Whip. Our new Chief Whip has decreed that we have a free vote this afternoon. I am expressing my personal view as Liberal Democrat shadow Leader of the House, but I hope that my colleagues will follow my good example.
The new Leader of the House has had rave reviews in the media because it is clearly anticipated that he will be the House's man. I welcome that. However, I hope that the first, limited step that we are discussing will not also be the final step towards improving the conduct of the House's business. As other hon. Members have said, we look to the Leader of the House genuinely to lead us in trying to re-establish parliamentary control, not least over scrutiny and holding Ministers to account.
The Modernisation Committee, on which I was proud to serve, has produced several reports that are relevant to the motion. It is important to say up front that there is a genuine difference between quantity and quality. The quality of our work is not measured by the quantity of time that we spend on it. We must try to identify ways of improving the product without simply extending the hours. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said, use of time is only one weapon. The weapons of effective argument and effective use of time should be our major consideration.
I plead with hon. Members who participate in the debate to read what must be the shortest report from any Select Committee. The report that the Modernisation Committee produced earlier this year is only one page, but it appears that not all hon. Members have read it. Again, I put it on record that the report's parentage is cross party, whatever the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) says. She may want to airbrush Sir Peter Emery, her former parliamentary neighbour, out of history, but he wrote the draft report. Neither the former Leader of the House nor I but Sir Peter Emery wrote it, and it was then discussed in the Committee.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who voted for the report, is not present. I am also disappointed that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) is absent because he took an active and positive role in the earlier stages of the Modernisation Committee. None of those hon. Members complained about its chairmanship or said that the Leader of the House should not have chaired it. That spurious argument arrived on the scene with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton at a late stage in the proceedings.