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The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): In the last Session, the Modernisation Committee conducted a survey of Members' views on electronic voting. A majority of hon. Members who responded were against such an innovation.
Mr. Cook: Including the hon. Gentleman. I shall discuss with the Modernisation Committee whether there would be any value in revisiting the issue in this Parliament, but such a major change could not proceed without substantial support.
Mr. Thomas: I thank the Leader of the House for his response and pay particular tribute to the reforming zeal that he has shown on taking up his new post, especially in the announcements that he made last night. What estimate has he made of the time that we waste voting in the Lobby? The devolved Administrations in these islands
Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman is quite right to go to the heart of the debate, which is whether electronic voting would permit quicker voting. There would be a time saving. It is also important to bear in mind the fact that the eight minutes that are required to enable Members to attend before the Doors are locked represent the majority of the time taken for Divisions of the House. Unless it were proposed that those eight minutes should themselves be reduced, electronic voting would save three or four minutes per Division at most. That is not without significance in itself, but it must be weighed against the fact that most Members when last asked wanted the present system, not electronic voting. The final decision must be for the House.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one reason why a majority of the House has continually argued the case for voting in the manner that we do is that, although it takes 15 minutes, it enables Members of Parliament to put Ministers and Cabinet Ministers under scrutiny when we have not been able to find them during the rest of the week?
Mr. Cook: I am very familiar with the principle that my hon. Friend enunciates. I assure him and the House that all electronic voting systems that were considered in the last Parliament required the personal presence of the Members voting. For example, if we were to introduce smart cards, all Members would have to go through the Aye or No Lobby, although they might be able to go through more quickly. There is a balance to be struck.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman has raised the matter before and I have considerable sympathy with the argument that the House should move with the latest technology. In the first instance, that is a matter for the Chairmen's Panel, which must rule on what is and is not permissible in Standing Committee. However, in the last Parliament the Modernisation Committee considered the way in which Parliament uses information technology and it may well return to that issue in this Parliament.
Mr. Jack: I am most grateful to the Minister for his very positive response to my small campaign, particularly in the light of the fact that, as a result of the agreements made last week, Members are, among other things, to be able to have a laptop computer. Those could be used, for example, to take bulky documents, such as notes on clauses for the Finance Bill, into the Committee Room in
May I urge the Minister to continue the work that he mentioned in his answer, particularly through the Modernisation Committee, so that Membersespecially Opposition Memberscan sensibly use electronic aids to enhance their ability to scrutinise the Government's work?
Mr. Twigg: I am well aware of the right hon. Gentleman's long-standing small campaign, which may reach fruition in the coming Session. I am also aware of the advantages that he has described. As I have said, this is a matter for the Chairmen's Panel in the first instance, but I believe the Information Committee has already conducted an experimental paperless meeting that was viewed positively by its members, and I therefore believe that progress will be forthcoming.
The main chamber of the Californian Assembly has a laptop at every position. That has not disrupted its work, but has enhanced it, and many other Parliaments are doing the same. We are lagging behind, and I urge my hon. Friend to use his good offices to press the programme forward.
Mr. Twigg: Clearly the small campaign has cross-party support. One of the changes in Standing Orders agreed during the past few weeks will enable Committees to work more closely together, which will give the Information, Modernisation and Procedure Committees an opportunity to work together on this matter.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): While there are clearly several advantages in proceeding with the investigation of the use of laptops in Committees and so on, I caution the hon. Gentleman, especially in the light of what was said by his hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller). If we are to set a precedent, obviously it may well apply to the Chamber. The idea of our having to gut the Chamber and fit it out with tables and chairsor, heaven forbid, have some sort of hemicycle and look like every other Parliament in the European Unionis one that I would resist at all costs.
Mr. Twigg: I am well aware that the hon. Lady would wish us to resist learning from other countries in the European Union, but I am not sure that her view is shared by all Members, or even by those on the Opposition Benches. I think that if we can learn lessons from positive examples in other parts of the world we should do so, and I believe that we can do so in the case of the instance raised by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack).
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The Queen's Speech announced four draft Bills, including major Bills on communications and rail safety. I will aim in future Sessions to introduce as many Bills as possible in draft, but in view of constraints such as the availability of parliamentary draftsmen, it will take time to achieve a system in which scrutiny in draft is the norm.
Mr. Clelland: Is my right hon. Friend aware that during the last Parliament I had the privilege of serving on the Armed Forces Bill Committee? As he will know, the Committee was something of a hybrid, being part Select Committee and part Standing Committee. That gave us an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and visit establishments affected by the legislation before beginning the Standing Committee procedure and considering amendments. I know that the Government's enthusiasm for Select Committees has taken a bit of a knock recently, but does my right hon. Friend feel that the same process might be suitable for other legislation in future?
Mr. Cook: First, let me assure my hon. Friend that my enthusiasm for Select Committees remains undiminished. Indeed, this Government have established the Select Committees faster than any previous Parliament. I agree with his central point, however: if we achieve legislation in draft, we are more likely to have good legislation when it is published. In this case good scrutiny makes for good legislation, and for good government.
I certainly give my hon. Friend an undertakingin the light of his, and my, experience of draft legislationthat I will seek wherever possible to introduce Bills early enough for them to be considered in draft.
Now, however, we should move on to consider how we can make the Select Committees more effective. I know that the Leader of the House has in mind pre-legislative scrutiny that is appropriate to such Committees, and I think he also has in mind a rolling programme of legislation so that we do not try to cram it all into one Session. Can he give an assurance not only that those issues will be addressed urgently, but that Committees' scrutiny of European legislation will be improved? It is primitive and far less effective in this House, in this place, in this country than in most neighbouring European countries.
Mr. Cook: I am not entirely sure that all the shots last night went over our bows, but I absolutely agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said about Select Committees. Indeed, in the previous Parliament, the Modernisation Committee identified Select Committees
I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the way in which the House carries out its European scrutiny. That issue will need to be addressed by the Modernisation Committee, but I put down a marker that one of the ways in which it could be addressed is to mainstream European scrutiny throughout the departmental Select Committees, rather than hiving it off into a separate forum.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that, in the Scottish Parliament, pre-legislative scrutiny is part of the legislative process. Will he undertake to look into how that is working in the Scottish Parliament: not only the upside on how well it is working, but some of the flaws of the system? For example, I believe that there is some problem with the foxhunting Bill because of the composition of the Committee that has been considering it. However, I join others in arguing that if there is merit in the proposal, and I believe that there is, the scrutinising role of Select Committees should be enhanced in that way.
Mr. Cook: I am very happy to say to my hon. Friend that I have already met my opposite number in the Scottish Parliament and hope to visit the Scottish Parliament in September to see what lessons we can learn. It has had an advantage that we do not have: it has created the rule book from scratch. There has been no base on which to build and nothing to constrain it. There may be lessons that we can learn and I am happy to study them.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Although the House welcomes the pre-legislative scrutinyafter all it was a Conservative Government who first brought in the notion of publishing draft Bills in advancewill the President of the Council acknowledge that no amount of pre-legislative scrutiny should reduce the important scrutiny of a Bill once it has gone through its First and Second Readings on the Floor and is in Committee? At no stage must that scrutiny, which after all is party politicalpre-legislative scrutiny tends to be cross-partybe reduced.
Mr. Cook: Nobody is suggesting that there is a trade-off between scrutiny in draft and scrutiny of a Bill brought before the House on Second Reading. The procedures for scrutiny in the House will continue. At the same time, if we get the draft right as a result of pre-legislative scrutiny, we can save the time of the House and hon. Members as well as of Ministers. In the previous Parliament, the International Criminal Court Bill went through the House more quickly than it might have done if it had not been scrutinised in draft first.