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3.41 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): The whole House will agree that this has been an interesting and useful debate, and I thank right hon. and hon. Members, led by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), for their contributions. Let me repeat the remarks of the Leader of the House and say that it would be a great shame if this were to be the right hon. Gentleman's last speech as shadow Leader of the House. He is an asset to the House, even if on some occasions—indeed, on many occasions—he is somewhat on his own.

I notice that the right hon. Gentleman has not been reaching for his bleeper this afternoon; indeed, I am not even sure whether he has taken to wearing such a modern device—but if he has one, clearly it has not gone off. I congratulate him. He might wish to point out to the House that his deputy, who also made a good and well-informed speech today, was special adviser to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), so I am sure that he will be watching his progress very closely.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has a duty to the House and to the process of scrutinising the Executive's proposals, but he also, rightly, has a duty to the Government and to their right to achieve their legislative programme. After all, that is what the Government were elected to carry out. I think that most Members believe that the balance between those two pressures is about right. As many people have said in the debate, it could improve, but—contrary to what the shadow Leader of the House said—it is legitimate for the Government to expect that their legislative programme will be reasonably scrutinised and, at the end of the day, they should have the opportunity—

Mr. Tyler: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Woolas: Let me develop my point before hon. Members start to intervene.

Programming did not originate with this Government; it originated from Committees of the House, particularly in 1985 and 1992, with Conservative majorities. Programming was not, as the Opposition have attempted to suggest today, motivated by the needs of a heavy-handed Government making irresponsible use of a large majority. It was originally motivated by a desire among Back Benchers on both sides of the House—and, indeed, among Front Benchers—for sensible timetabling of Bills.

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Mr. Shepherd: The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the Procedure Committee's 1985 recommendation. The then Conservative Leader of the House, John Biffen, said that the recommendation favoured Governments, and on a free vote, a Conservative majority joined a Labour minority and voted it down.

Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but my point is that the motivation for programming has not come about through the desire of the Executive. He is more experienced in, and aware of, the route map of programming, but I should point out that programming evolved; it was not invented by the new Government in 1997. I wanted to make that point because it is an extremely important one.

Sensible timetabling of discussions—I emphasise the word "sensible"—especially when they are controversial, is a good thing for all concerned. It allows Front Benchers on both sides of the House to plan their speeches and interventions, and to plan with outside bodies, as is legitimate. It allows Back Benchers, who have many competing demands on their time, to know in advance with some accuracy when the issues of concern to them and their constituents will be debated. In my opinion, it is wrong to say that timetabling has had a detrimental effect on scrutiny, and the facts back that up. The House should look to the quality, as well as to the quantity, of scrutiny. On both counts, sensible timetabling has improved matters.

I concede—as the report concedes and my right hon. Friend conceded in his opening remarks—that in certain cases, programming has proved detrimental, and it is the business of this report and of this debate to try to improve it. It works well only if there is co-operation. That is part of its purpose: it gives Standing Committees and the usual channels the responsibility to work together to timetable debates in a sensible way.

In answer to a point raised by the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), it is not programming that makes bad legislation; it is irresponsible filibustering that takes away from Members not involved in that filibuster the opportunity to debate the clauses and schedules that they consider important. If a commitment to co-operation were made—there have been many examples of co-operation in the current Session—programming would work for all of us.

Indeed, in researching for this debate, I found dozens of examples of Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen congratulating the Government usual channels on the well-ordered manner of the debates. I was going to read all of them out, but some of the Members in question are present and I do not want to embarrass them today. However, I shall offer some examples. In the Standing Committee that considered the Licensing Bill, the following was said:

It was said of the programme motion for the Criminal Justice Bill that

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In the Standing Committee on the Extradition Bill, the Opposition spokesman said that

There are many examples of programming benefiting the sensible work of the Committee.

Today's debate has been divided between those with an outright opposition, in principle, to the idea of programming, and those on the other side—I admit that they come from a wide spectrum—who accept the principle of programming but want to improve its operation. The Leader of the House and I include ourselves in the latter category: we are committed to making this work. In that context, it is wrong to portray programming as a measure adopted by a heavy-handed Government; it is a genuine attempt to provide sensible, modern timetabling of debates.

I want to consider the alternatives to programming that were described by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett). The idea that there was a golden age is simply wrong.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I do not want to go too deeply into this issue, but I want to consider those rare occasions when a Bill is considered in Committee on the Floor of the House. Two Bills relating to Northern Ireland were so considered in this Session. Both provided for a great deal of subordinate legislation, so they were not simple Bills. On the first occasion, there was no Committee stage. By the time we had dealt with the programme motion and had Second Reading, the whole thing went through like a tablet of stone. I make this plea: can we avoid that in future, because it is an abuse of Parliament?

Secondly, what are the modalities of deciding what time should be made available in those circumstances, bearing in mind that minority parties as well as the official Opposition and some anoraks like myself are interested in these matters? How are we to deal with the occasions when there is a need for expedition, but not abuse?

Mr. Woolas: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He provided some good examples of where sensible flexibility is required. In the first instance, programming was, I concede, undesirable. It is also the case that the House is learning how to use programming in a constructive way. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said, like all parliamentary procedures, it is a matter of evolution. However, if Opposition Members set their faces against it and deny it the opportunity to work, scrutiny—together with the reputation of the House—will suffer.

Mr. Tyler rose—

Mr. Woolas: I shall give way just one more time, but then I must finish my speech.

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Mr. Tyler: As a former member of the Whips Office—I, too, have been a Whip—I would like to ask how the Minister reacts to an extremely important recommendation from the Chairman of Ways and Means, which is recorded in the report. He said that

What is the Minister's response?

Mr. Woolas: My first response is to say what existed before programming. We have heard examples from pre-1992 Sessions and I understand that I was criticised earlier by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd)—I was not present, but I bow to the hon. Gentleman's greater knowledge. What happened in the earlier period was that the usual channels ipso facto agreed the programming and timetabling of Bills. Secondly, if knives are imposed by a majority on a Committee that is unwilling and there is no consensus for that action, the likely outcome—experience on the planning Bill bears this out—is that it will not work well. It will not result in better scrutiny. However, I agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who agrees in principle with timetabling, that if we are committed to making it work and we learn from our experience—the Hunting Bill is one of many examples—we can move forward together. I must now make progress with my speech.

The Modernisation Committee report is helpful in setting out how we can improve programming for our benefit in the House. It is very strong in its support for the principle, but I believe that the core recommendation is in paragraph 10 on page 5, which points out that the principle is fine, but improvements need to be made. That is the basis on which we bring the motion before the House today.

I invite the House, especially hon. Members opposed to today's motion, to consider the consequences of not having programming. We had some examples of that earlier today. As the report says, there was never a "golden age" of full scrutiny of all clauses of all Bills. On the contrary, there was deep and widespread dissatisfaction with the haphazard nature of scrutiny. That frustration was the motivation that led to the introduction of programming.

In any event, the programming and timetabling of Bills is only one part of the jigsaw of modernisation. I know that the word "modernisation" sends the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst into apoplexy—[Interruption.]—so let me use a different turn of phrase. Making House of Commons procedures relevant to the British public is, I believe, the same as modernisation. Opposition Members are kidding themselves if they believe that the antiquated methods of discussion—through-the-night debates, speeches that nobody listened to—will make the average voter in our constituencies respect this place more. People do not come up to me on the streets of Oldham and say, "Phil, that was a great intervention at 2.30 in the morning on the National Minimum Wage Bill". They are more likely to say, "What on earth are you lot doing down there, behaving like that?". Programming and modernisation represent a serious attempt to reconnect Parliament with the people whom we represent, and the programming motion should be seen in that context.

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The Government have improved scrutiny. In this Session, nine Bills have received pre-legislative scrutiny. Does the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst commit himself to adopting pre-legislative scrutiny, in the unhappy event that his party were to take power, or would he prefer, as I suspect is the case, to do away with pre-legislative scrutiny because he thinks it is a modern innovation that has no place in our procedures? It would be interesting to hear his reply in future debates.

The Government introduced Westminster Hall, allowing Back Benchers more opportunities for Adjournment debates. From my experience of trying to make programming work in my previous designation in the Whips Office, I can tell Opposition Members that if they think the usual channels are happy with all the new procedures, they misunderstand the position. Those procedures create a greater workload for Ministers. The number of times that Government or Opposition Back Benchers have forced Ministers to come to the House has increased dramatically since the introduction of Westminster Hall. It is a shame that hon. Members do not take it as seriously as they should.

What frustrates the House on all sides is not the sensible timetabling of Bills, but the attitude of those on the Opposition Front Bench who agree, often in private, with a sensible timetable for debate, and who often agree with the measure before the House or the Committee, and then detain the House late at night with pointless votes against programming out of some misguided sense of opposition. If they oppose the measure, that is what they should vote against. They should not delay the House by debating how it should be debated. It is such Opposition antics, not the sensible timetabling of Bills, that bring the House into disrepute.

The shadow Leader of the House gave the game away in his infamous "back of the taxi" memo. He may be coming to the end of his time as shadow Leader of the House, although I genuinely hope not. Let me remind the House what he said at the beginning of his time as shadow Leader of the House, when he wrote the infamous memo to his Chief Whip:

If one sets out with the objective of opposing a Bill come what may, of course one will oppose in principle the sensible timetabling of Bills, but is it not better to adopt the philosophy of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage, who has pointed out in the House and elsewhere that strong and sensible argument is the strongest weapon of opposition, not filibustering and delay, which in my opinion bring us all into disrepute?

The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), who unfortunately could not be present for the debate, has asked:

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That is the alternative to timetabling. [Interruption.] I hear it rather unkindly suggested that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells may know about that, but his point is nevertheless valid.

Do we want to go back to legislating without timetabling, when the House was brought into disrepute by schoolboy antics? I respect, as does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, the fact that the Opposition have a duty to oppose. That is the nature of our parliamentary democracy, but it is facile to waste the time of hon. Members. How many hours have been spent not on opposing or scrutinising Government proposals, but on arguing about when hon. Members are to argue about when they are to argue about them? We saw that yesterday, in a wholly false debate about the Water Bill, when we could have spent the time discussing other important matters. Hon. Gentlemen criticise my right hon. Friend for not allocating sufficient time, but it is now two hours before the moment of interruption, and where are the hon. Members who oppose the heavy-handed Government with their large majority? I suggest that some are Upstairs celebrating, and some are Downstairs commiserating. Those are not good opposition tactics; they serve to discredit the House.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that he wishes to consider measures to help to make programming work and the hon. Member for Witney made some sensible suggestions. He made a valid point about late amendments. Sensible timetabling is contradicted by the introduction of many late amendments, whether by the Government or the Opposition. The report makes that point and says that the situation should be improved, but many of the Bills that we debate do not have knives, even under the programming regime. Although the hon. Gentleman made some sensible points, I reject the central thrust of his argument, which was opposition in principle to the idea of programming.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage made some strong points, but she also said that she was critical of the current operation of timetabling and wanted to improve it. Many other hon. Members agreed. However, I agree with my hon. Friend's central point. I, too, was on the Committee that considered the national minimum wage. It sat for 36 hours, not to improve scrutiny but for filibuster after filibuster.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich made her opposition clear and I respect that, given her vast experience of debates in the House. However, I disagree with her strongly on one point. She said that parliamentary procedures evolved out of a concern that they were relevant to the people. I do not believe that that was the case. Parliamentary procedures evolved from the practices of the gentlemen's clubs of the Mall and the courtrooms and restaurants of west London. The reason we started at 2.30 in the afternoon was not to make us relevant to the textile workers of Oldham or the railway workers of Crewe; it was to fit in with a timetable that is wholly alien to a modern democracy. While I respect my hon. Friend's views, I reject that argument.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) agreed in principle with the report—I thank him for that—but pointed out several dangers and problems that might arise. He reminded the House, wisely and with great pertinence, especially for newer Members such as myself, of the dangers of not having programming. I respect him for that argument.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) pointed to some improvements that could be made. I disagree with his point about the House of Lords. I shall not delay the House further with long lists of how—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Well, perhaps I will then. The facts from this Session show that, on average, the House of Commons spends longer on Second Reading than the House of Lords. On average, the House of Commons spends longer in Committee than the House of Lords. On average, time spent on Report is broadly comparable between the two Houses. I concede that it is slightly longer in the House of Lords, but that is because of the way in which the House of Lords takes amendments on Report. On average, the House of Commons spends more time considering Lords' amendments than the House of Lords spends covering Commons' amendments. Line-by-line scrutiny does not exist and never has existed. It is a myth that programming in this House is forcing the other place into spending more time on scrutiny. We know what is happening: it is political opposition. I respect it for that, but let us be honest about it.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, with the great experience that he brings to this matter, said that he has nothing in principle against the motions. I share his view that all those who favour programming want to see it improved.

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, in a strong and passionate speech, said that he did not accept the principle of programming. We must respect him for that, but I hope that I can reassure him by saying that programming is not a heavy-handed, irresponsible use of our majority, but an attempt to improve matters for Back Benchers and Front Benchers on both sides of the House, and—most importantly—to make the House of Commons relevant to, and understood by, the people of this country.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 232, Noes 87.

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