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29 Oct 2002 : Column 766—continued

Sir Peter Tapsell: That is a bowdlerisation of what I said.

Michael Fabricant: It is a summary of what my hon. Friend said. He made a powerful speech, which he would not have been able to deliver under the conditions that I believe will be introduced if all the proposals are passed.

Mr. Pike: On the issue of short speeches, does the hon. Gentleman recognise exactly what is being proposed? It is proposed to allow two extra minutes for interventions within a 10-minute speech, and time will be allowed for the interventions. Virtually 14 minutes will be available if a Member gives way twice during a 10-minute speech.

Michael Fabricant: Yes. However, what I do not understand, and what the hon. Gentleman has not taken up, is why there needs to be change anyway. I welcome the proposed change of Standing Orders, which will allow the Speaker to assess how many Members want to contribute to a debate, and to adjust the time allocated accordingly. However, it seems nonsensical that there will be a fixed limit of 10 minutes regardless of how few or how many Members want to participate in a debate. That seems to reflect the usual respect that is accorded by the Executive to those who wish to speak in the Chamber.

The hon. Member for Chorley—it is a pity that he is no longer in his place— took up the question of staffing in this place. It is clear from the response of the Leader of the House to a question asked by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) that there was no consultation about staffing before the event. There will be consultation after today, but no questions were asked before. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) said in an intervention that he had conducted a straw poll in the Tea Room, the result of which revealed that the staff, if they could, would resist the changes that are being proposed.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) speculated on what we could do after 7 o'clock. She said that perhaps hairdressers could be opened for her later in the evening. I may or may not want to make use of that facility. However, we should not come here to visit hairdressers or to go to cinema clubs. We do not come to this place to enjoy a sort of social club. Our role primarily is to scrutinise the Executive and to examine legislation. That will not be best achieved by leaving the House at 7 o'clock. Similarly, it will not be best achieved by having to make difficult decisions about whether to appear in the Chamber or whether to attend meetings of Select Committees.

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I believe that the situation that we enjoy now is enjoyed for the best. We shall gain no respect nationally if we make changes tonight that are not for the benefit of the legislature but are merely for the benefit of our personal convenience.

8.20 pm

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): I made it clear in my maiden speech, which was on this very subject, that I would certainly seek to serve to the best of my ability, however ineloquent I may be, those progressive forces in the House that work to promote the cause of modernisation. I have been glad to serve in that guise as a member of the Procedure Committee in its lengthy investigation of the way in which we table questions. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) for his chairmanship of the Committee, which I believe has had a lot to do with the number of suggestions that the Government have accepted. I shall return to that point later.

When I was a student studying political science and the nature of the British constitution and its institutions, of which this House forms the beating heart, one of my standard texts was written by John P. Mackintosh, a distinguished Edinburgh university professor and, until his death, the Member of Parliament for East Lothian. As the originator of many incisive and searching commentaries on the political world as he found it, he described and, indeed, defined in his texts the nature of the British constitution and its ability to accommodate change. Although he died some time ago, his analysis of how change comes about in the constitution is still relevant today.

John Mackintosh is best remembered for describing that regenerative process of constitutional change as the ability to fill old bottles with new wines. Even old bottles develop fault lines and cracks and need to be replaced rather than recycled. At the end of the day, it is not the bottles that are important, but the quality and clarity of the wines that fill them. In simple layman's terms, this debate is about the quality of the legislation that we produce. It is that which matters to our constituents, and not the quaint processes that we follow to produce it. While having one eye on the parallel world outside this House, we therefore need to seek to serve the public better by embracing modernisation and adapting to change by adopting more modern work practices, just as parties on both sides of the House have encouraged other public bodies to do.

The work of the Modernisation Committee must therefore be applauded and its proposals should be accepted as the part of the dynamics of change that we must all embrace. What organisation would survive, whether in the business, social or academic arena, if it did not plan its work in a constructive and strategic fashion, ensuring that those who are charged with carrying out its business construct a proper business plan and know exactly when that business will be conducted during the calendar year? Such plans make it clear when exams have to be sat or tax returns filled out, and might even deal with when family events can be arranged. In addition to the ability at last to carry over legislation from one Session to the next, such change will allow Governments truly to achieve and fulfil the mandate that they have been given by the public,

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without the fear that the business that they have been charged to conduct may be derailed through the obstructive and obscure tactics of an Opposition who are willing to employ technicalities of procedure to deny the popular will.

In the course of the consultation carried out by the Modernisation Committee, I made clear my preference for an early start at 11.30 and also for a finish closer to 9 pm than 7 pm. Such a finishing time would extend the hours available for business. I made the proposal not out of perversity, but in the hope that the extra hours would give Back Benchers such as myself greater opportunity to contribute to the debates in this Chamber. Indeed, I am glad to be called earlier in this debate than I usually am.

I also made the proposal in the light of the great unhappiness felt by a vast majority of Back Benchers—hon. Members should be well aware of this point—about the way in which their opportunity to contribute to debates is sometimes denied because of the preferential allocation of speaking time according to seniority. Membership of the Privy Council, often in respect of services given decades ago, gives a privileged set an unlimited speaking time. As a result, many hon. Members are excluded and their views and those of their constituents are ignored. I well remember sitting through the emergency debate about Iraq after having received letters and had meetings with churches, but being denied the right to speak. As a result, my constituents were disfranchised and left to one side. We cannot allow that to continue.

On balance, having listened to the debate, I am convinced that the proposals advanced by the Leader of the House are worthy of support. The early finish will allow greater and less interrupted opportunities for hon. Members to become more involved in the myriad all-party groups and Back-Bench committees and to question Ministers more. It will also aid them in developing a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the issues with which we have to deal on a daily basis. I believe that a limit on speeches, however abused, will go some way to address my fears about speaking times in the House.

As for the opportunities that we Back Benchers have to contribute to debates and how they are ordered, I believe that the issue may be better addressed as a subject of the calmer and more collected deliberation of an appropriate Select Committee. Having served on a Select Committee, I can see the benefits of such a process. Certainly, the work of the Procedure Committee on issues relating to how we table questions and the way in which they are dealt with, which has made such a significant contribution to the modernisation proposals, offers a useful format for such a review. I should like again to pay tribute to the Chairman of the Committee for the way in which he guided our deliberations. I believe that the quality of the work that was done and the report is a tribute to him and the way in which he handled the Committee's proceedings.

It is also worth forcefully making the point that the Committee took the opportunity to visit the Scottish Parliament, which started from scratch, to review the way in which it dealt with tabling questions, before reaching our decisions and forming our recommendations. The reduction of tabling time, the

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introduction of electronic tabling and the cross-cutting question sessions in Westminster Hall on specific policy areas will have a huge impact on the way in which we scrutinise the Executive. The Committee could see the benefits of the first two of those proposals in action during our time in Edinburgh, where they have been in operation—I refer especially to electronic tabling—since 1999.

As a member of the Procedure Committee, I should like to speak in support of the amendment tabled in the names of its members, including mine, and set out on the Order Paper, proposing that we introduce an extended Question Time on Tuesday and Thursday that deals with specific topics of relevance and contemporary concern to hon. Members and their constituents. We feel that the proposals deserve serious consideration and we urge hon. Members to support the amendment.

I should like to take up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who is not in his place. The issue is not that we want to continue Question Time. We want the opportunity, which is already enjoyed in the House of Lords, to pick a specific topic for Question Time and have a half-hour in which hon. Members from both sides of the House can do a lot of work on that topic and focus on it. I know that the Leader of the House has referred to the proposed cut to three days in respect of tabling questions as a sop in that regard, but the issue at stake is completely different. It relates not to the tabling of specific questions, but to the ability to concentrate on a topic that we can choose in discussion with the Speaker and to put greater focus on the question at hand. Such questioning would give much greater opportunity to question Ministers more regularly and more quickly. It would also ensure that a sharper spotlight was focused on departmental policies. I think that that is a worthy and noble aim. The proposal would do a great deal to enhance the role and status of ordinary hon. Members and sits well with the rest of the long-overdue package of modernisation.

While supporting and welcoming the proposals, we should not accept them as a final word. Although we have made significant progress, if we succeed in gaining the approval of the House for all the initiatives, much will be left to be tackled. While the changes will make a difference, there is still a lot to do. However welcome they are, they go only part of the way towards ensuring that we adapt to and accommodate the rapidly changing world that lies just outside the vaulted and grand gateway at St. Stephen's entrance. That is where the real world resides. We have heard about engagement with the public, and some time soon we will undoubtedly have to review how we as parliamentarians and a Parliament interact with both the constituents who elect us and the communities that we serve.

I believe that many of the innovations of the devolved Scottish Parliament are worth considering. The work of the Public Petitions Committee, which is chaired by my constituency colleague and predecessor, Mr. John McAllion, must be an advance on the old, large, green handbag that sits forlornly behind the Speaker's Chair. If we consider the number of petitions in that bag and the number of people who can attend the Public Petitions Committee and present their case to

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parliamentarians, albeit in another Parliament, there is no comparison. The Leader of the House and his team should examine that. A Select Committee that is appointed to consider petitions and their bona fide anxieties would start the process of re-engagement.

Only when we meet the challenges, match the changes outside and look the modern world in the eye, without feeling embarrassed about the quaint and quintessential reminders of the way we were 40, 50 and 60 years ago that continue to be perpetrated in our practices, can we say that we have achieved genuine modernisation. There is a long way to go.

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