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29 Oct 2002 : Column 716—continued

Mr. Forth: Can I test the hon. Gentleman's memory a little further? Does he remember roughly how many hours my Government allowed that Bill in Committee before they guillotined it? Will he confess that one of the reasons why it was not properly scrutinised in the time allocated was that the then Opposition—I have no problem with this in those circumstances—filibustered the Bill so that it could not be scrutinised? Will he tell us how many hours the Bill was allowed in Committee?

Mr. Pike: I cannot remember the exact number of hours, but I can remember saying to the right hon. Gentleman in an intervention on one of his speeches that he made Margaret Thatcher seem a moderate. He said that that was a compliment and that he accepted it. That puts his position into perspective.

That style of debating and of dealing with legislation—the Opposition thought that their role in delaying proceedings and provoking a guillotine showed that they had opposed a measure—was nonsense. It was not constructive for the country and a 10-minute—or something like it—limit on speeches will ensure better

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scrutiny. It is nonsense to believe that what we did in 1984 and 1985 is how people want Parliament to operate in the 21st century. I accept that there was filibustering, but I do not defend it.

I remember that when we considered the Gas Act 1986, the then Member for Rhondda spoke for two and a half hours about Wales having a national mistletoe planting day. At the end of that time, he had convinced me of the importance of the issue. However, debating in that way is nonsense, and that is what modernisation is trying to prevent. That is why we want time limits on speeches and better scrutiny.

The thrust behind the proposals for modernisation is not to make our job easier or to allow us to take hours off. That is not what I want. I want to ensure that we have better legislation and better scrutiny. I will not be here, but I accept that, in the years ahead, we will once again be on the Opposition Benches. That may be in 20 or 30 years, and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) may be in government again if he is not too old or past it. He will then view some of the changes that we are announcing today as very sensible. Draft Bills are important and carry-over is essential.

We also need an annual calendar. How stupid we all seem when constituents ask us whether we can do something in our constituencies and we have to say that we do not know. They sometimes ask us, XCan we come and lobby you on this issue in Parliament?", but we have to say that we do not know whether it will be debated. They tell us that they know that it will be because they have received notification. What nonsense that is. We should know and be able to plan the use of our time in our constituencies. If I accept a commitment in Burnley, I should know with 100 per cent. certainty that I will be able to fulfil it. The proposal is sensible.

Time limits on speeches are important. Many people will argue that it is wrong to impose such limits, but I believe that they are right. I do not have a right to speak at length if that means that I will prevent some of my colleagues from having an opportunity to express their views. We are all elected as equal Members, and we should have the same opportunities to debate the issues. The type of filibustering that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has carried out when he has opposed legislation has done the House a disservice. I hope that the proposals will be carried tonight.

5.18 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) said. However, he paid tribute to the Leader of the House, and I hope that the Leader of the House will forgive me if I do not follow the hon. Gentleman down that path. The media and Members of the House seem to treat the proposals as though they are Government proposals. They are not. They are the proposals of a Select Committee, just as the proposals of the Procedure Committee, of which the hon. Member for Macclesfield

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(Sir Nicholas Winterton) is the distinguished Chairman, are from an all-party Committee. It is important to recognise that.

Mr. Forth: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Tyler: Yes, but I have only just started my speech.

Mr. Forth: Will the hon. Gentleman concede, however, that the so-called Modernisation Committee, like all Committees of the House, has a large Government majority and that in this case—unusually and wrongly—it is chaired by a member of the Government and, indeed, a Cabinet Minister? Does that not make the Committee rather different?

Mr. Tyler: The right hon. Gentleman is not a Committee member. I very much regret that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) is not here. I pay tribute to his role in Committee. He was helpful, sensible and level headed, and we attempted to produce proposals that would benefit the whole House in its relationship to Government.

I know that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has read the report, but he did not sit through the Committee's sittings. There was no minority report. The Conservatives did not vote against the report. Indeed, they made a number of suggestions to improve and strengthen it, some of which my colleague and I supported. It is a grave pity if the right hon. Gentleman has not had the benefit of the advice of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire. The Committee reached an important consensus on strengthening the role of the House in relation to Government. I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for accepting that suggestion. I dare say he did not play it up at great length in Cabinet discussions, but it is an important part of the report.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst plays a wonderful duet with the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, who takes a level-headed, low-key approach. We have got used to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst playing a more doom-laden, bloodcurdling role, as he did today. I see him nodding, so he agrees with my description. It is Dracula and Scooby-Doo.

Mr. Forth: Which am I?

Mr. Tyler: Whichever one the right hon. Gentleman thinks best displays his tendencies.

People who approach the problem with a conservative frame of mind—either big C or little c—must address the central issue. Unless the House does something to improve its working methods, we are in danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant and being bypassed by the Government.

Let me give an example. The right hon. Gentleman said that his colleagues have a free vote. I accept what he tells us because he is an honourable man. Last week, however, he and his colleagues briefed the Financial Times as follows:

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So they have a policy, but they also have a free vote. Even more indicative of their frame of mind is what the article went on to say:

That is the real issue. If we have an hour for questions at 9.30 and perhaps another hour for statements, that would take us to 11.30. So the official approach of the Conservative Front Bench is that the House takes from 11.30 to 2 pm for lunch. That is what their policy is all about.

Some Members who contributed to the debates on modernisation and the work of the two Select Committees, and who also responded to the questionnaire about how best to manage our affairs, took a much more practical attitude than that displayed by the right hon. Gentleman on behalf of his party. We have a real opportunity to gain, or in some people's minds to regain, more control of the management of our business. It is an attempt to wrest back from the business managers and the usual channels greater control of our affairs. That might explain the rumours of the past few weeks, which also circulated in May. Perhaps the Government Whips are unhappy with some of the proposals. Opposition Members must think carefully about that. I hope that Back Benchers will not be bamboozled as they were in May.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I was struck by the hon. Gentleman's idea that any doubt about the proposals makes one a conservative with either a small c or a large C. Does he think that the whole package must be adopted by everyone and that there is no space for critical examination of elements of it? Surely the view of the House is that there is much merit in some of the package, but that there is much doubt about other parts of it.

Mr. Tyler: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. This is a package, but I am not suggesting that every part is essential. Indeed, I agree with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that hours are not the only or even the predominant issue; there are other good parts to the package. My party has no whip on this matter, but I think that the majority of my hon. Friends agree that the proposals hold together as a good package.

The issues that we must address this evening are important and, if approached positively by all parties, they could make a major change to what I would call the balance of trade between the House and the Government. One example is the Procedure Committee's recommendations on questions. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Macclesfield and his colleagues on that Committee for their thorough job of investigating how we can improve our ability to put topical questions. I agree with the amendments on that subject tabled by several members of the Procedure Committee.

We should have topical questions, and I regret that the Government have apparently shut the door on that proposal. If it is not passed this evening, I hope that through the appropriate channels we may tactfully suggest to the Speaker that we would like more private notice questions to be permitted, particularly from Back

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Benchers. The extent to which private notice questions are dominated by Front-Bench Members, including, on rare occasions, my colleagues, is a pity. There should be more opportunities for private notice questions or, as we suggest in our report they should be renamed, urgent questions.

The purpose of the changes in hours is not to make the House and its procedures more Member friendly or even more family friendly; it is to make them more voter friendly. That is why the report places great emphasis on the fact that we have, through the various media, to address an audience that is quite different from the audience of 100 or 200 years ago. Parliament, if it is to be effective and relevant, has to be accessible, in the full sense of the word, and visible. It has to be shown to be setting the daily media agenda rather than simply reacting to it much later.

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