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29 Oct 2002 : Column 733—continued

Anne Picking (East Lothian): Is not the fundamental purpose of our being here to represent our constituents, not to stand up and be windbags?

Sir Peter Tapsell: As a matter of fact, I do think we must represent our constituents, but we do not do so by being dreary, ignorant bores.

A rigid, universal 10-minute limit on speeches would have destroyed our parliamentary heritage. I know we will be reminded—it is astonishing that we have not been reminded already—of the sermon on the mount and the Gettysburg address; but although Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ could move the world in 10 minutes, most of us need a little longer.

A great parliamentary speech is a work of art. It resembles a symphony: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. It must have light and shade, variations in tempo and tone, passion and wit, and sustained, serious intellectual content. It must concern an important issue on which there are strong, competing views in the House and in the country. I think of Wilberforce evangelising for the abolition of slavery, John Bright crusading for cheap food and free trade, Churchill pleading for rearmament, and Sydney Silverman, in my parliamentary youth, calling tirelessly for an end to hanging. All spoke from the Back Benches, and at length.

There were many, many others—a whole great galaxy of parliamentary heroes, some of whom never reached the Government Bench, but whose voices still echo

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across the centuries. If they had been confined to 10-minute speeches we would never have heard of them, and Britain would long ago have gone down the plughole.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I call—

Sir Peter Tapsell: I have hardly begun!

Lloyd George advised the young Harold Macmillan not to say anything in the first five minutes of his speech, but to wait for the House to fill up. It is happening rather slowly this evening.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): Is my hon. Friend aware that he would also be allowed to respond to no more than two interventions during his speeches? As he has taken one from the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) and one from me, I have now denied others—including the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), who I see wants to make a comment—the right to intervene. What does my hon. Friend think about that?

Sir Peter Tapsell: I think that I could have done even better without a second intervention.

Let me now turn to the proposals for sitting hours. New Labour seems set on turning the House into a safe haven for nursing mothers and geriatrics like me. I do not presume to speak for the mothers, but I suppose I should be grateful: if we are never to sit after 7 pm, I see no obstacle—the Almighty and my electors permitting—to my remaining here for several more Parliaments. I may, like Lord Randolph Churchill, die by inches in public, but at least I will not—unlike the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)—ever be tired.

The proposed new working arrangements are rather nicely judged to be unsatisfactory for effective opposition, but inconvenient enough to prevent Back Benchers from pursuing a profession and gaining experience of what is rather slightingly called Xthe real world", or acquiring honestly—rather than by brown envelopes—that financial independence that can be such a bulwark of independent thought, speech and voting integrity. The proposed new hours are, in short, a charter for party political hacks.

To develop the sensible point made by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking), who intervened on my speech, the greatest merit of outside interests is that they enable a Member to maintain inside this House a proper perspective on the lives of the people whom he or she has been elected to represent. An MP cannot spend all weekend simply wandering around supermarkets in his or her constituency, much as I enjoy doing that. A competent MP needs to be able to put the interests of his or her constituents to the fore, in the context of the national scheme of things, and of the ever-growing international pressures of the modern world. To do that, he or she needs a great deal of experience that cannot be acquired just in this House, in its Corridors, or in the Rooms that used to be smoke filled.

Ideally, we would all have much more experience than we have at the moment. However, for a whole variety of reasons that are inevitable in the modern world, many of

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us come into this place without the sort of experience that people had when I entered the House. A holder of the Victoria Cross, commanders of cruisers and brigades, major trade union leaders, chairmen of great companies and editors of great newspapers then sat in this House. All that has gone, and it is not going to come back, but we must not produce a way of life in this place that is attractive only to retired polytechnic lecturers.

What are we all going to do after 7pm? [Hon. Members: XAh!"] Ideally, we would all return to the bosom of our family, but many of those bosoms are far away. The prospect of 650 parliamentarians suddenly released, like the prisoners in XFidelio", tramping the streets of London looking for vulnerable people to help, is one to which only a Hogarth could do full justice.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's time, I am afraid, is up.

6.23 pm

Anne Picking (East Lothian): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak after the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell). What an abysmal contribution that was; it has set us back mega. It is great to be able to stand up, posture, pontificate, show off and make a wonderful speech, but, as I said in my intervention, we are here to represent our constituents.

The fact that I am even on my feet and speaking is overwhelming for me. Because of the pecking order and the current system, which is unfair, the opportunities for new Members to make contributions in this Chamber are very limited. I should be able to represent my constituents in East Lothian in the same fair and equal way that my hon. Friend the Father of the House is able to represent his constituents in West Lothian. If speeches are time limited, I and the other new Members who are trying to find their way and make a difference in this place—a place that we, too, are in awe of and respect—will be able to do that.

The reason I ended up on the Modernisation Committee is a story in itself. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) was my replacement on the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions after its vote last July. My reward for doing the honourable thing by falling on my sword was membership of the Modernisation Committee. I doubt whether a new MP would normally have that honour, and I have thoroughly enjoyed serving on it under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

The Modernisation Committee seeks to make this Parliament relevant and engaging, and to increase the level of participation among elected Members of the House. What on earth is wrong with that? Rather than repeating what others have said, or trying to ensure that our speeches are heard back at the ranch or included in a press release, we should make disciplined contributions, and engage in meaningful debate and wholly proper and efficient democracy.

I intend to be unique. I intend to make the shortest speech because I want to set an example, but before I finish I want to point out that the argument concerning carry-over versus genuine scrutiny does not make sense. If we want more genuine scrutiny, we must adopt carry-

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over. It is absolute nonsense to argue that legislation will be rushed through and that we will run out of time. I want far more time, so that there is proper scrutiny to ensure effective and efficient legislation.

I hope that all other Members will adopt my policy of making short, sharp contributions. We should remember that this is an experiment—we do not have to get too worried about protecting the status quo. Let us try to do things differently. If the new method proves more effective, let us adopt it; if it does not, we can ditch it or change it. Nothing is set in stone. Just because the way in which we have worked over the years has been okay—just because we have eventually got there by dilly-dallying—that does not make it right. We have a duty to try to do our work more effectively. If we expect the firefighters to modernise in order to promote and provide better public services, what is wrong with us modernising to promote and provide better services for our constituents?

6.27 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I agree with the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) on the subject of carry-over, and I do not agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). I say that because I was the spokesman on constitutional affairs when Lord Norton produced his report, which I thought a wholly convincing document. It made admirable sense on that subject, and I shall certainly exercise my free vote in favour of the Leader of the House's proposal in this regard. Much of the report is refreshing, attractive and acceptable. For instance, I have no difficulty in supporting the proposal for September sittings. It is extremely difficult to make a logical case against that proposal, so I shall vote for it.

I am not against so-called modernisation in all particulars. However, I do believe that if we are to change, it must be for the better, and I am troubled by a number of issues. I do not like the way in which the Government are going to abandon Fridays. We have little enough time in this House to debate issues on the Adjournment. Such issues may not be hugely contentious in political terms, but they are of great national importance and need discussing. To sacrifice Friday upon Friday is a profound mistake. Of course, I want a large number of Fridays to be devoted to private Member's legislation, but to get rid of all the others is, frankly, wrong.

Nor do I like the arbitrary 10-minute limit on speeches. Here, I join forces with my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), who made a marvellous, rumbustious speech. Would that he could have gone on for another 12 minutes. Mr. Speaker and his colleagues in the Chair—including you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—have the wonderful facility of decreeing time limits. Mr. Speaker decided on a 12-minute limit for today's speeches. Last week, he decided on an eight-minute limit. Sometimes he decides on a 10-minute limit, and on others he opts for a 15-minute limit. That seems the right, flexible approach. When a vast number of Members want to speak, we have to be cut down, but when they do not, it is entirely appropriate to allow us to develop our cases at rather greater length.

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I come to my principal argument against the recommendation on length of speeches. I am one of those Members who like to speak without notes. I like the spontaneity of debate, but when we are time limited it is impossible to maintain that spontaneity and to give way when one likes to do so.

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