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11 Mar 2003 : Column 158—continued


The President of the Council was asked—

Electronic Voting

27. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): If he will make a statement on his proposals for electronic voting in the House. [101896]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): Any change to electronic voting would require a consensus among hon. Members, and the survey of their opinion in the last Parliament did not produce a majority for change. I understand the value that hon. Members place on the opportunity for contact with colleagues in the Division Lobbies, and I would need to be persuaded that there is a settled will for change before departing from the present practice.

Mr. Bercow : In his glittering parliamentary career, that statement from the President of the Council will certainly rank as one of the highlights. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that any electronic voting system would be costly and almost certainly open to abuse unless it involved the use of fingerprinting or was televised? Given that, does he accept that the late Lord Falkland's wise dictum—that that which it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change—should be followed?

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman is generous in his remarks. He does not encourage me to think again in respect of the position that I have outlined to the House. I am sure that no hon. Member would wish to abuse any voting system. I am confident that if a new system were introduced, its use would proceed in a calm way. However, there is a fundamental problem of topography when it comes to introducing electronic voting in the Chamber. We are almost unique among western democracies in that hon. Members do not have fixed seats. Almost every place that has introduced electronic voting has done so on the basis that there are fixed seats. I do not anticipate that hon. Members would want to depart from the present arrangements in the Chamber.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): I assure the Leader of the House that he is wrong on that. It is curious that there are not even enough seats in the Chamber to allow every hon. Member to be here at the same time. If there were—[Interruption.] I have listened in silence to other hon. Members' points of view. I should like them to listen to mine. If there were sufficient seats there could be sufficient buttons for each hon. Member to press for each vote, personally, in sight of all their colleagues. We could save something like 14 minutes per vote, which would allow considerably more debate on Report, when we are considering amendments and scrutinising legislation.

Mr. Cook: I am justly rebuked by my hon. Friend for the error of my conclusion. I understand that some Members will see some attraction in his proposal, but it would alter the character of this Chamber for all time. For instance, the Chamber would have to be much larger.

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I am also conscious that, if we were to vote from our seats, there would be less of the free milling around and contact that we presently have in the Division Lobby. I know that Members value that immensely—although it may not always be equally valued by Ministers who are exposed to lobbying. Nevertheless, the Lobby is an important point for Parliament to come together.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): We on this side of the House welcome the Leader of the House's robust answer. Does he agree that the main justification for any system of electronic voting is that it enables an elected Member to vote from his or her place? Any system that involved walking to an electronic machine would therefore be pointless. Does he accept that a proper electronic system could be introduced here only if we demolished this Chamber or, at any rate, altered it substantially? In view of that, does he agree that any further discussion and investigation of this matter is rather a waste of time?

Mr. Cook: I would not wish to go down in history as the Leader of the House who demolished the Chamber. The right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the work required to accommodate change would be formidable. We should also be clear about the extent to which time would be saved. I presume that we would still ring the Division bells for some eight minutes before Members came in, so the time that we would save would be the next area for discussion.

I can see a case for electronic voting when there are multiple Divisions. However, most Divisions arise during the passing of legislation. From our recent visit to the Scottish Parliament, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that, even though the Scottish Parliament uses electronic voting, MSPs do not vote without waiting for the results of earlier votes when passing legislation.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that another idea is floating about? If, perchance, electronic voting came in—and I would not vote for it—we would need a different system for different people. For instance, all those moonlighters on the Opposition Benches, who work outside this building making money on the side, would have to have a special little device, like a pager, so that when they went into their City stockbroking firms they could press their button there. I hope that my right hon. Friend has studied this issue carefully, because change would cost a hell of a lot of money. If that happens, we should charge those Tories for using those devices.

Mr. Cook: As I understand him, my hon. Friend agrees with the Conservatives in opposing electronic voting—although, in his own way, he has managed to find grounds for disagreement with them. If we were to make any change to the voting system, I am sure that the House would insist that, whatever the method, Members should vote in person. I fear that this afternoon's exchange has confirmed my impression that there is not a settled will for change.

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28. Bob Spink (Castle Point): What recent representations he has received on the modernisation of the House of Commons. [101897]

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): I continue to receive a number of representations from Members of Parliament and of the public. It would be a fair summary that nearly all possible views on modernisation are expressed in those representations and I regret that they are not all mutually consistent.

Bob Spink : In the light of our experience last evening when a number of clauses were passed without any debate at all, does the right hon. Gentleman not find that the mood of the House has changed substantially? Would it not be in all our interests for this matter to be brought to the House for a vote, perhaps in September or at the end of this Session, rather than waiting until the end of this Parliament before we revisit it?

Mr. Cook: When the House considered this matter in October and took its decision, it took its decision for the rest of this Parliament. That seems to me an entirely fair period for which to reach an assessment. However, I must correct the hon. Gentleman about his comments on yesterday. There was no reduction in the time for debate on the Local Government Bill or any other Bill yesterday. The Bill received the same amount of debate as it would have done under the previous hours, by virtue of the fact that the debate continued until 10 o'clock, it being a Monday. However, the Bill would have received the same amount of debate time had it been a Tuesday or Wednesday, stopping at seven o'clock.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Many of us on the Labour Benches appreciate the modernisation and reforms that my right hon. Friend has initiated. Reforms such as putting a greater emphasis on pre-legislative scrutiny do a great deal to enhance the reputation of this House. I fear that taking a step backwards at this stage would not be in anybody's interest.

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support for the changes that we have made. We should not lose sight of the fact that the bulk of the changes have consensus support in the Chamber. I think that all Members of the House welcome the fact that Question Time can now be more topical as a result of the sharp reduction in the period of notice required. The introductory cross-cutting question session in Westminster Hall was generally agreed to have been a great success, especially by the representatives of the youth organisations who attended and by the record number of Members who attended Westminster Hall on that occasion. All Members appreciate the distribution of the text of statements immediately after the Minister has completed making the statement.

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Many of the modernisation measures have full support so it would be premature for the House to revisit those areas that have yet to command the same degree of consensus.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Have the Leader of the House, or indeed the Modernisation Committee, which he chairs, considered suggestions that Parliament should have a more specific role in authorising the Government's use of the royal prerogative? Is it not ironic that the American President has to go to Congress for specific consent to permit American troops to go to war, while the British Prime Minister has no constitutional responsibility to the House in similar circumstances? It seems that President Blair is more presidential than President Bush.

Mr. Cook: I think that we could get too hung up on what may be the legal niceties of the situation. As I said at the start of the present Iraqi crisis, it is inconceivable that any Government could commit their troops to action without the support of Parliament. That remains my position; that remains the position of the Government. Of course, any Government must reserve the right to act immediately if the safety of our troops is at risk but, subject to that obvious reservation, a decision in this place should come first and I attach the highest importance to the right of the Commons to vote on the matter before there is any conflict.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the main objective of programming was to ensure better scrutiny of legislation both in the Chamber and in Committee? Is he surprised, therefore, to learn that on many occasions the Opposition parties believe that because the knife falls at 5 o'clock, debate should finish at 5 o'clock and not continue after that time? Do we not need to look in more detail at trying to get an agreed system on times so as to ensure that Committees work better and Bills receive proper scrutiny?

Mr. Cook: As a member of the Chairman's Panel, my hon. Friend speaks with authority on experience in Committee. He will be aware that the Modernisation Committee, of which he is also a member, has agreed to keep the experience of programming under review, and we may have an opportunity to examine some of those points of detail later in the Session.

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