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29 Oct 2002 : Column 786—continued

9.34 pm

Mr. Forth: The debate has been informative and, by and large, good natured, given the strength of feeling on both sides of the House. I want to pick up a few of the key contributions that encapsulated some of the more crucial arguments. Before I do that, however, I want to add my praise for the work of the Procedure Committee under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). It has offered us, on an all-party basis, a sensible and practical way to advance the ability of Members to question the Government in the House. Remarkably, however, one Committee member told us that although he had tabled the amendment in the name of the Committee, he did not feel able to vote for it. That is another approach, which perhaps we should consider.

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made an excellent speech. He said—I paraphrase him, and hope I do so accurately—that voters care about what we do here, not when we do it. That is a brief sense of his contribution, and I agree with him. If we could focus on that as a proposition it would be much more productive than getting bogged down, as we all too often have, in the arguments about the hours we work. We will come to our collective conclusion about the hours that we work and get on with it, whatever that may be. I hope, however, that Members will give far more consideration to how effective we are when we are here rather than worrying excessively about the hours that we work.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) also reflected that sentiment and put it rather similarly. He said—again, I paraphrase—that it is what we do that matters. Although he favoured many of the proposals, he emphasised that thought and I hope we cling to it when we vote.

In a similar vein, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), in a typically robust speech, said something that rang true with me. She explained that rarely in her experience have constituents questioned her or taxed her on our working hours or our

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procedures in the House. She was right in saying that her constituents want to know how effective we have been in our different ways in the House, and in the different roles that we fulfil, in discharging our duties on their behalf and, ideally, for their benefit.

I am always intrigued when Members say, as many have today, that some constituents talk of little else than the hours we work. Apparently, some constituents are going to be watching closely what we do tonight and will judge us, individually and collectively, on the momentous decision that we reach on the hours we work. All that that illustrates is how very different our constituents and constituencies are, and I must admit that I am more at one with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich than I am with those who claim to have that remarkable dialogue with their constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) highlighted one of the more important considerations, which is to be voted on tonight. We have gone badly wrong with the systematic timetabling or programming of Bills. Many Members have argued that one of our prime duties is the scrutiny of legislation. The Conservatives contend—I think I speak for most, if not all, of my colleagues in this—that the Government's ruthless approach to restricting the time available for the scrutiny of Bills both in Standing Committee and on Report has diminished our effectiveness as a House of Commons and the opportunities that we as Members of Parliament have properly to scrutinise legislation. That is why I will ask my hon. Friends to vote against the motion to validate systematic timetabling of Bills. It has ill served the House as a legislature and we should reconsider it.

I appreciated the contribution of the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who always has at the front of his mind the welfare of those who work with us in the House. I also appreciated his use of the term Xwith us" because that is the appropriate way to put it. He put his finger on a flaw in the procedure. We have got to this stage and are a few minutes away from making decisions on how we work and the hours that we work without having properly consulted the staff who work in the building with us. It would have been more appropriate for a Government who claim to care so much about working people to take more trouble to learn what the people who work with us in this building truly think about our way of working and our hours, and allow that to inform the debate. Apart from the hon. Gentleman's contribution, the matter has not been mentioned at all, which I very much regret.

I turn now to the contribution of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley). If I may give him a little avuncular advice, I think that he should take a refresher course at his charm school because what he said did not reach out to us to gain our support. More importantly, almost his entire speech was preoccupied with the idea that there is now insufficient time in the Chamber for junior Members of the House to speak. All I say to him is that he is about, I assume, to support a further diminution in Friday sittings in the House, which are opportunities for Members to speak. I assume that he supported the reduction in sitting hours for the House, from the good old days, when we sometimes sat beyond 10 o'clock, to the time until 10 that is now available. I bet that he will vote against our proposal to start at 9.30 am, which would give Members more time to speak.

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All in all, the hon. Gentleman complains about the lack of opportunities for Members to speak; yet at every turn he supports the measures that reduce the opportunities for Members to do so. He ought to make up his mind about his priorities. Our amendments offer more opportunities for the House to deliberate, but it seems that some Labour Members are reluctant to take those opportunities. I add in passing that the hon. Gentleman chose to use his full allocation of 12 minutes. May I suggest that he has a word with the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking), who, earlier in the debate, managed pithily to make her points in four minutes flat? There are many ways to deal with the problems facing the House, and it did not strike me that the hon. Member for The Wrekin offered us any solutions at all to the problem that he posed for himself and the House as a whole.

I shall conclude my comments well within the time allocated because I want the leader of the opposition to have ample opportunity to reply to the debate. The Leader of the House, as the Chairman of the Committee, is in by far the best position to explain to those who have taken part in the debate how he will react to some of the very pointed questions that have correctly been aimed in his direction.

All I say to my hon. Friends is that I hope that they will consider what I have said, both in my opening speech and in my few remarks now. I hope that not only my hon. Friends but Labour Members will seriously consider our amendments, in the spirit in which we have tabled them, in an attempt genuinely to improve the way in which the House works. I hope that, in the end, whatever solution the House comes to by the end of voting tonight, we will unite in a determination to make our proceedings as effective as possible in holding the Government to account.

9.43 pm

Mr. Robin Cook: We have had an honest and thoughtful debate. I am not one of those who subscribes to the theory that the House is at its best when it is at its least partisan. I have to confess to the House that I am an unreconstructed tribalist, and I think that the House is at its best when it embodies the clash of passion in the nation outside this place. Undoubtedly, however, one of the strengths of tonight's debate is that a number of cross-party points were made on both sides of the Chamber.

One of the most remarkable speeches, and certainly one of the most candid, was that by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who urged us to confront the fact that Parliament is not working, and the fact that we need to face up to the scale of change that is necessary if we are to have proceedings that are more topical and more to the point.

To answer one of the themes that ran through many of the contributions, one of the things we need to do to have debates that are more topical and to the point is to ensure that as many MPs as possible can speak in them, which means that we have to have limits on speeches. The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter. Tapsell)—if I can catch his attention for a second—argued that shorter speeches in debates would strengthen the Executive, but that argument is wholly misconceived. What time limits on speeches do is

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strengthen the chances of other Back Benchers being able to speak in the debate. A Back Bencher who makes a 30-minute speech, deprives another two hon. Members of their opportunity to make a 10-minute speech.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) made an exemplary speech about time limits, and concluded well within the time limit for the day. He was especially concerned, as he said repeatedly, that such time limits might become mandatory. May I remove that anxiety from his mind and that of the House? The motion before us does nothing to change the discretion that is available to the Speaker as to when to apply time limits: that decision will remain with the Speaker.

As a matter of fact, the change in Standing Orders before us tonight will provide for slightly longer speeches when time limits apply: motion No. 13 will provide additional injury time for hon. Members to apply to up to two interventions. Having sat through the debate, I can say that one of its strengths has been the way in which hon. Members have taken interventions and replied to them. I believe that that opportunity will be greater as a result of the change to Standing Orders.

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