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29 Oct 2002 : Column 706—continued

Sir Nicholas Winterton: In my view, the Leader of the House gave a very firm assurance during Modernisation Committee debates that it was the Government's intention not to introduce more legislation, but to provide better scrutiny of the same amount of legislation. Will my right hon. Friend challenge the Leader of the House now to give that assurance not just to the Committee, but to the House?

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend has done a very effective job in challenging the Leader of the House, and I am more than happy to pick up that challenge. In the end, I suspect that the acid test will be whether, over a very brief period, the Government start to increase the number of Bills that they introduce, unconstrained by

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the end-of-Session limitation, and facilitated by continuing, ruthless and routine guillotining and timetabling of Bills.

Mrs. Browning: Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about a tendency that is developing? There is pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills and scrutiny of them in Committee, but the Government are tending to introduce a lot of new clauses in another place. Because of guillotining, we are unable to look at such provisions at all, and the same point will apply to the terms of the proposal before us.

Mr. Forth: Sadly, that has proved to be the case. As recent experience shows—it is one reason why we voted against the timetabling of Bills—evidence abounds of our being unable properly to discharge our responsibility, as one House of the legislature, in scrutinising Bills. As a result, we are passing that responsibility to those in another place. I yield to none in my admiration for what the House of Lords does; I just wish that we were still able properly to discharge our responsibilities, in the way that our colleagues at the other end of the Building are able to do.

Mr. Robin Cook: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and I to pass messages to each other through his speech. I respond to the challenge by saying that I fully stand by the commitment in the Modernisation Committee report that the purpose of carry-over is not to increase Government legislation. There would be no point in the Government's seeking such an increase, because it would be self-defeating. In the second year, one would run into even greater congestion if the total volume were increased. That is why carry-over—taking the two years together—cannot increase the total volume of legislation.

Mr. Forth: Well, we shall see. I think that we are entitled to be just a little suspicious of the Government's motives at this stage, so I shall sustain my opposition to carry-over, and I invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to do so as well.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept the belief of many that—as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said—because we elect a five-year Parliament, the phased introduction of legislation during that period would be much more sensible? When the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister and he introduced legislation late on in a Session, did he ever feel that it might not be properly scrutinised? On the other hand, did he ever have to withhold legislation that he wanted to introduce until the new Session? I ask him to recall his feelings as a former Minister.

Mr. Forth: My recollection is that I was always reluctant to bring legislation to the House and that when I did it was always well planned and well executed. I recall that in the 1991-92 Session I took through the House what was at that time the largest Education Bill ever introduced. We probably spent some 120 to 150 hours in Standing Committee before there was any

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thought of bringing in a guillotine. It is interesting to reflect on the approach to legislation in the 1980s and early 1990s, and compare it with the approach taken by the Government now. I have no difficulty with my memory of the rosy days that were my time as a Minister as they compare with the approach suggested by the Government.

The Modernisation Committee report contends:

I could not agree more. The Opposition are fully signed up to that proposition. What mystifies us is why the Government are making the odd, hybrid suggestion that the parliamentary day start at 11.30. In some ways, it is the worst of all worlds. We have picked the argument up and taken it to its logical conclusion: we propose that, to make the fullest use of the parliamentary day, it would make sense for the House to meet at 9.30 in the morning, and to allocate that morning session to the very important matters of departmental questions, topical questions, ministerial statements and all the other vehicles by means of which hon. Members of all parties can seek to hold the Government to account and question Ministers.

Mr. Brazier: Earlier, I invited the Leader of the House to comment on my right hon. Friend's excellent proposal. Did my right hon. Friend notice that the only objection that the right hon. Gentleman was able to raise was the technical one that it would somehow interfere with Mr. Speaker's ability to select amendments and so on? Is not that a bizarre argument, as such work could presumably be done on the preceding evening?

Mr. Forth: I have the utmost faith that you, Mr. Speaker, your colleagues and the Clerks of the House would be able to respond if the House wished to sit at 9.30 in the morning. I agree that the Leader of the House's objection to our proposal was rather spurious.

Having set aside the early part of the day to giving hon. Members the opportunity to question the Government and hold them to account, we want to be able to guarantee that the afternoon period between 2 pm and 7 pm would protect the House in its legislative role, which is when it considers the Second Reading and Report stages of Bills, for instance. The Opposition are mystified as to why the Government and the Modernisation Committee should have produced what is a rather half-baked proposal. What they propose is neither what we do now nor, as we see it, is it a proper use of the parliamentary day.

Sir Patrick Cormack : Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that, when he uses the royal Xwe", he is not referring to everyone on the Opposition Benches? Further, will he also answer the point raised by the Leader of the House by making it plain that the vote on the motion before us is totally unfettered and free and that, when I vote against a start time of 9.30 am—as I undoubtedly shall—I shall be exercising that privilege with his total approval?

Mr. Forth: I assure my hon. Friend that I would never dream of attempting to speak on his behalf, and that I

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shall not do so on this occasion. The Leader of the House has teased me about this a couple of times now. The right hon. Gentleman is a student of Hansard, and will know that once or twice I have been reported as having nodded assent. The Opposition have asked colleagues to be present for this very important set of votes but, beyond that, we expect all hon. Members to exercise their individual judgment on the merits of the matters before them. My role is simply to set out my views, the views of those of my colleagues with whom I have discussed these matters, and the views of those in whose name the amendments have been tabled.

In that regard, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I tender the apologies for absence of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight)? He has been on parliamentary business abroad and has been unavoidably detained. He has asked me to convey his apologies to the House, and I hope that they will be accepted.

I do not want to get bogged down or diverted by the argument about hours, which I think reflects what the Leader of the House said. The hours that we sit have an importance, of course, and we must all make our own judgment about how best we think the House can discharge its responsibilities in the hours that it sits. However, that cannot be seen as the main issue. If we look back far enough in history, in its very early days the House sat at 8.30 am, for quite some time. Whether we choose to start at 9.30 or 11.30 in the morning or whether we continue with the current hours, we will consider the options and make our various judgments, but we must not become too distracted. We must focus on how we use those hours—that is the key to the matter. We must consider the way in which the changes will reflect that.

Paragraph 63 of the report recommends:

That is true, which is why we shall not oppose the recommendation. However, I know that many Members on both sides of the House find the argument about so-called family friendly hours a bit bizarre, when many families live in constituencies very far from Westminster. The sad truth is that this is rather an Islington argument. It has a certain appeal to those fortunate enough to have homes near the House. Even Mrs. Forth occasionally expresses enthusiasm for the idea that she might see me in the evenings. [Laughter.] I knew that I was pushing my luck with that remark. However, there is a serious point here—we must not become carried away with the idea that all Members of this House can go home, put on their slippers and cuddle the cat, or whatever else they cuddle in the evenings, because very many, almost certainly the majority, do not have that privilege. It is with that in mind that we, in our own ways, will be looking at the proposal on hours.

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