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29 Oct 2002 : Column 713—continued

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): The shadow Leader of the House is saying, XWe will, we will, we will"; does he mean that a whip is being operated by the Conservative party?

Mr. Forth: I do not know how often I have to say this, but I will say it again because it is obvious that some Labour Members require three or four repetitions before they understand. We are not whipping this business. What I have said is what I and my colleagues on the Front Bench believe to be the appropriate response to these very important matters, but we are telling our hon. and right hon. Friends that this is a House of Commons matter, and it is for them to judge, as they will in their different ways, and they will vote in different ways. If any proof is needed of that, following conversations with my colleagues I can assure the hon. Gentleman and others that, on many of these matters, there will not be unanimity among the Opposition. We shall demonstrate by the diversity of our views the mature approach that we take to these matters.

I hope that those who perhaps took a different view before I stood up will now be so persuaded with what I have said that nearly all of them will join me in the Lobbies tonight, but I suspect that that may be over-optimistic. I give way for the last time; then I will conclude.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I should be interested to know whether the shadow Leader of the House has any views on the future of private Members' Bills, because that is the great lacuna in the document. On Fridays, private Members can introduce their own legislation, or putative legislation, which can get on the statute book, but the document merely refers us to a review in the new Session, about a possible slot for private Members' Bills. Does the shadow Leader of the House have any views on this issue?

Mr. Forth: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to do something that I like to do on these occasions: quote no less a person than Sir Winston Churchill. In giving evidence to the Select Committee on Procedure in 1931, he said:

I could not and would not attempt to put it better myself. I believe that the present procedure for private Members' Bills is absolutely appropriate and that it gives a balance between the rights of private Members and the difficulty that should always be placed in the

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way of legislation, so my own personal answer to the hon. Gentleman's very reasonable question is that there is no need to change the procedure for private Members' Bills, and I am sure that Sir Winston would agree with me if he were here today.

I hope that the House will accept that our approach and response to these proposals is measured. We are not against change in all cases. I hope that I have demonstrated that, where we believe that change is beneficial to the House and where it enhances the role of the House vis-á-vis the Government, we are prepared to accept and endorse it, but where we think that it is yet another step in the diminution of the role of the House and in the reduction in the possibility for Members to hold the Government to account, we will oppose it. That is why we have tabled amendments perhaps to eliminate some items and to change others. I hope that Members will look at them and judge them on their merits, and I invite not only my colleagues—my right hon. and hon. Friends—but Labour Members to judge them in that respect and to vote appropriately later this evening.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I must remind the House that there is a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which operates from now.

5.7 pm

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): I am glad to have the opportunity to speak at this early stage in this important debate. As a member of the Modernisation Committee—I am the only Labour Member who has served on it since it was established following the 1997 general election—I recognise that this is a compromise package. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has tried for almost a year to reach consensus and to achieve as much support as possible to move forward the procedures of the House, and I congratulate him on his efforts. He will know that I would have wished to go further on one or two issues, but we have to go forward one step at a time, and I assure him that I shall vote with him 100 per cent. in the divisions later tonight.

Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend describes these measures as a compromise package, but does he not agree that, although it is right for the House to take the decision, it would have been better to consult the people who work here and whose working hours will be affected by these changes before taking a decision?

Mr. Pike: I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will reply to that point at the end of the debate. The various House Committees—that on catering and others—have tried to take account of such views. Let us make it absolutely clear that if the main votes are taken at 7 o'clock, the House will not shut down; the catering department, the Library and other facilities will remain open and many Members, including me, will continue to work at our desks until 10 o'clock. I stayed here until gone half-past 11 last

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night, although the House rose earlier than that. I have no doubt that that will not change as a result of the proposals.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pike: I want to make my speech, so this will be the last time that I give way.

Mr. Turner: Following the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), does not the hon. Gentleman agree that conventional, modern employment practice involves people putting a proposal to their staff, asking the staff for their view—not assuming their view, as the Government have done—and coming to a conclusion on the basis of the staff's view, as expressed by their representatives? This process seems entirely topsy-turvy.

Mr. Pike: I do not accept that at all. My right hon. Friend issued a memorandum almost a year ago, outlining his thoughts on the way forward in the House, and I believe that people, including employees and the staff, have had opportunities to express their views.

I would have had sympathy with the Procedure Committee on a couple of issues in relation to questions. Members will know that I have long held the view that we should be able to ask questions in the recess, and I still believe that. I accept that we will not be able to do so at the moment, but I hope that we will return to the matter at a future date. I also sympathise with the Procedure Committee with regard to topical questions, but I accept that we will not address that issue at this stage, although we may return to it.

As the shadow Leader of the House indicated, overwhelming support exists for the proposed 6 pm finish on a Thursday. I remember that the Conservatives put up quite a lot of opposition when we originally proposed a 7 pm finish for Thursday nights. It is now accepted and recognised that that finishing time does not solve the problem for those who live in the north and other parts of the country. The move with regard to Fridays is also sensible. I welcome the fact that the Government will forgo all Government Fridays, and that there will be only private Members' Bills on Fridays in future.

In respect of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), he and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House know my view that one of the gaps that we will create should be used for private Member's Bills—I would suggest 7 pm on Wednesdays. Again, we must have a full inquiry on that issue, and I hope that, at a future date, we may be able to move in that direction. When we gave up Wednesday morning sittings in favour of Westminster Hall, I believed that that time slot could have been used for private Members' Bills. We will need to return to that issue.

Given the number of different proposals and views put forward by Members, I recognise that we will not get a consensus on Tuesday and Wednesday sitting times. I worked in a factory in which shifts changed every three days in a continuous glass-making process. Everybody used to say that they did not like the system, as they had to do three eight-hour shifts and then change and do

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another three eight-hour shifts before moving on. Management used to say to me, as the shop steward, XFind a system that the workers prefer, and we will accept it and implement it," but we could never find a system to which everybody wanted to change. Every Member will have a different view on the way forward. I believe that the proposals for Tuesdays and Wednesdays are sensible, and, as I said, it has already been indicated that overwhelming support exists for the proposal for Thursday.

I think that we will adjust to the new system in terms of our Committee and other work. As for the suggestion that it will cause problems for Committees, many Committees already meet at half past nine in the morning. The Regulatory Reform Committee, of which I am Chairman, sat at 9.30 this morning, as we have done consistently. I shall sit on the Modernisation Committee at 9.30 tomorrow morning. Some of the problems to which people are drawing attention are not insurmountable.

In my view, the most important change is carry-over, and I am very sorry to hear the Opposition's comments on the matter. Let us be absolutely clear—carry-over of legislation is crucial. I support it because I genuinely believe that people elect a five-year Parliament. At a general election, people vote for a Government to have a four-year or five-year programme, not four one-year programmes. There should be a sensible flow of legislation; it should not be restricted by an artificial cut-off, as will happen on Thursday next week. That is nonsense, and we must be sensible.

I link with that the introduction of more draft legislation, which will ensure better legislation, as carry-over will ensure better scrutiny of legislation. Many years ago, the shadow Leader of the House served on the Bill that became the Transport Act 1985. He will remember that that Bill was guillotined. Hardly any of it had been debated in the House of Commons, and many sections of it were not scrutinised in the other place. What an absolute nonsense for a Bill that has had tremendous implications for bus transport in the whole country since then.

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