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16 Jan 2003 : Column 819—continued

Business of the House

12.30 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): It would be a pleasure, Mr. Speaker:

Monday 20 January—Opposition Day [3rd Allotted Day]. Until 7 o'clock there will be a debate entitled XGovernment's Failure to Tackle the Crisis in Winding up Arrangements for Occupational Pensions", followed by a debate on European directives on traditional herbal remedies and food supplements on an Opposition motion.

Tuesday 21 January—Debate on House of Lords Reform on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House will wish to know that there will be a further debate on Tuesday 4 February in which Members will have an opportunity to vote on the seven options recommended by the Joint Committee.

Wednesday 22 January—Debate on defence in the world on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 23 January—Remaining stages of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill.

Friday 24 January—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week after will include:

Monday 27 January—Second Reading of the Electricity (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

Tuesday 28 January—Second Reading of the Railways and Transport Safety Bill, followed by motions relating to the establishment of a Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department. [Hon. Members: XHear, hear."] I am grateful for that support from Opposition Members.

Wednesday 29 January—Motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government has replied.

Thursday 30 January—Opposition Day [4th allotted day]. There will be a half-day debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Friday 31 January—The first debate on Private Members' Bills.

The House will wish to know that on Wednesday 29 January, the third meeting of the Committee on the Convention on the Future of Europe will take place to consider the fifth and sixth reports of the United Kingdom representatives to the Convention.

Mr. Forth: As ever, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the business.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) identified a case of premature expostulation by the Secretary of State for Defence. In column 699 of Hansard, with regard to yesterday's statement by the Secretary of State, my hon. Friend pointed out that by 5.30 pm the previous day, the Press Association was reporting that there would be a

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statement on the following day in which it said that the Secretary of State would be

You, Mr. Speaker, have deprecated such practices time and time again. What is the Leader of the House going to do to get Ministers to follow your instructions to stop demeaning the House and giving their information to the Press Association or anyone else before that happens here in the House of Commons? Time and again, Ministers have been giving crucial information to the media 24 hours ahead and then coming to the Chamber and boasting that they are bringing the matter to the House. This is just the latest example and the right hon. Gentleman must tell us what he is going to do to deal with the practice effectively and not allow it to continue.

The Leader of the House has often boasted that the series of ghastly measures—so-called modernisation—has resulted in no reduction in the time available for the House to hold the Government to account. Let us consider Thursdays. In the good old days, the House sat from 2.30 pm to 10 pm—seven and a half hours of quality parliamentary time to the hold the Government to account. Matters took a turn for the worse when the ghastly modernisers said, XWe'll sit from 11.30 am until 7 pm", and the Leader of the House said, XDon't worry, we'll still have the same amount of time to do our parliamentary business." That was just about bearable, but the modernisation process edged further forward, and the Leader of the House suggested that we should sit from 11.30 am till 6 pm on Thursdays. That is a reduction in parliamentary time by any reckoning.

What business is sufficiently trivial to require less time on a Thursday? Today, the vital fisheries debate has been squeezed into a mere three hours. That is an insult to the subject. Next week, the crucial Regional Assemblies Bill will be considered on a Thursday. Given that business questions are held on Thursdays and that statements occasionally follow, it is obvious that modernisation has reduced the time that is available for the House properly to hold the Government to account. What does the Leader of the House have to say about that?

Next Tuesday, we shall debate the vital matter of Lords reform. On 4 February, as the Leader of the House announced, we will have an opportunity to vote on seven different options for Lords reform. Where do we go from there? When we began the process, we believed that the Government had a policy on Lords reform. We believed that phase 1 was the virtual elimination of the hereditaries and that phase 2 would be the completion of the project.

That appeared to be the case until the Lord Chancellor said on the XToday" programme on Radio 4 on 7 January:

At least we now know that the Government no longer believe that what was originally meant to happen will take place. The Lord Chancellor helpfully said that

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I believed that that was the preferred option of the Leader of the House. The Lord Chancellor continued even more revealingly:

He went on, uncharacteristically modestly:

The Leader of the House should tell us now what will happen after next Tuesday's debate and the votes in February, especially in the likely event of the House and the other place reaching different views on reform of the House of Lords. What remit will the Government give the Joint Committee? What sort of timetable can we expect for the crucial completion of the reform of the upper House? The Joint Committee has identified at least eight pieces of further work that it must do, never mind the remit that the Government will give it after our votes. We need to know; otherwise, we shall conduct our debates on a crucial parliamentary and constitutional matter in a vacuum created by the Government.

Mr. Cook: I welcome the right hon. Gentleman back and wish him a happy new year.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government stand firmly against premature expostulation. It was widely known that the Secretary of State for Defence was going to make a statement to the House. From the moment such information is known, all sorts of people begin to speculate about the content—[Interruption.] The phrase that the right hon. Gentleman quoted was not in the statement. It is not only the press who speculate. The shadow Secretary of State for Defence touted himself around television and radio stations, speculating about the statement.

Mr. Forth: He is not the Government.

Mr. Cook: The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) may not be the Government, but neither is the right hon. Gentleman. What is sauce for him is sauce for the shadow Defence Secretary. The Opposition cannot complain about media speculation when they want the broadcasting media to interview them about the possible contents of the Defence Secretary's announcement.

On the question of the modernisation measures, we debated these matters very fully on 29 October. It was an excellent debate, which is fully recorded in Hansard. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to re-live it, I invite him to read that edition of Hansard, or to view the videotapes. All of these questions were put to the House on that occasion, and there was a very compelling majority for the conclusion that we should stop at 6 pm on Thursdays.

Before the right hon. Gentleman waxes any more indignant about the outrageousness of stopping at 6 pm, I should point out that last Thursday, the House actually finished before 4 pm because there were no speakers left to continue the business before it. I thank the right hon. Gentleman, but I refuse to feel particularly guilty. Perhaps some of the Opposition Members who are so keen that we continue until 6 pm

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on a Thursday will turn up to make a speech next time, which they did not last Thursday. I understand why the right hon. Gentleman was unable to be with us for last Thursday's business statement. We did deal with the Lord Chancellor then, thanks to the intervention of his deputy, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight). It is impossible to speak at too great length about the Lord Chancellor, and I am happy to do it all over again.

The fact is that five of the seven options that will be before the House when we vote on 4 February will provide for some form of mixed membership. The right hon. Gentleman complains that there is no Government view, but frankly, the strength of the debate for the House is that it will have a free vote and the decision. We set out that strategy clearly last summer, when I made it plain that we believe that reform of the second Chamber is a matter for Parliament and not just for the Government, and that it is therefore right that Parliament take a view. It would be wrong, having set out that strategy, for the Government now to try to lecture Parliament on what that view should be.

As to what happens next, there is no secret about that. A statement was made last summer, and we have discussed the matter on a number of occasions. What happens next is that the votes in both places will go back to the Joint Committee. There is no need for a new remit for the Committee. The remit that we agreed with the Committee last summer—when the Committee was established—sets out clearly that it will first come to us with an interim report on the options, which it has done, and then translate the outcome of those votes into a detailed proposal. That remains the strategy and the timetable, and I hope that we can take it forward in time to legislate during the next Session.

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