|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Woolas: Let me make a general and a specific response. At the core of the debate lies a disagreement about the nature of scrutiny and of opposition. Many hon. MembersI imagine the majority, but we shall find out latercontend that strength of argument and evidence that can be brought before Parliament should form the basis of opposition. Others argue that time and its use are a weapon of opposition and that any attempt by the Executive to control that means a diminution of the Opposition's power. The Government firmly support the first argument.
However, it is not true that we have restricted time for debate on major and even minor legislation to a greater extent than happened before 1997. There has been selective citation of the use of guillotines when many more were used before 1997 for reasons that have been given. If we compare the number of guillotines on Bills, many more were used before the Labour Government came to power. Confusion of internal knives with guillotines clouds the debate.
Mr. Shepherd: If the Deputy Leader of the House reads the Deputy Speaker's submission, he will realise that the definitions of "programme motion" and "guillotine" are almost indistinguishableearlier, I mentioned the Standing Order point about guillotinesbut he elides the two. Almost every Bill under this Government is guillotined.
Mr. Woolas: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, which he made in his speech. Of course, I read the memorandum from the Chairman of Ways and Means and we debated the point in the previous debate on the subject. The point that I am striving to make is the same as the hon. Gentleman's in his minority report to the Procedure Committee. According to his evidence, in the period from 1946 to February 1997, 67 Bills were guillotined, and from 3 June 1997 to 21 October 2003, 94 Bills were guillotined. However, in the previous debate on the subject, the comparison of internal knives in a programme motion with a guillotine that cut off the end date of a Standing Committee showed that the figures are comparing apples with pears.
If we examine the evidence in the fourth report from the Procedure Committee, and the evidence given by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), we find that the cat is out of the bag. On page 44, he was asked about filibustering, and said:
"I concede that in the old days a lot of time was wasted by filibusteringand, frankly, low-grade filibustering".
"The end date is crucial. If I can give away another trade secret, I actually think that knives are helpful to the filibusterers, if there ever were any such people and if they managed to escape the eagle eye of the Chair of the Committee."
In other words, for every knife that the usual channels put in place, there is an opportunity for filibustering. How can programming, which is simply sensible timetablingwhich every other institution in this country has, including the courts of law, which have their own procedures on timetabling business
Mr. Woolas: The right hon. Gentleman rises in indignation that I, a Member with only seven years' experience, should have a view on whether I should be able to go home before midnight or stay here until 4 am. I am quite prepared to stay here until 4 am. I did so on the National Minimum Wage Bill Committee, and it was the best thing I have ever done in Parliament.
What I see as the sensible timetabling of programming, some right hon. and hon. Members see as a curtailment of their rights. The evidence of that, however, does not stand up to scrutiny. The best bit of evidence is this: the Front Benches on both sides of the House are committed to making programming work better for all concerned, whether Back or Front Benchers. The strong, principled opposition to programming, which some right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House hold dear, is understandable, but making programming work is what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is doing. That is for the benefit of the House. [Interruption.] I should give way to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, as I quoted him at some length.
I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for quoting me, but I think that he is deliberately missing the point, which is perhaps obscured by the quotation. In previous times, the Opposition were largely in control of events until the Government decided that enough was enough. Whether the Opposition used that control wisely was up to them. Now the Government are in control of events and of the
26 Oct 2004 : Column 1376
timetable from the start. That is the crucial change that has taken place, which he and his colleagues seem to think is perfectly natural, and which I find obnoxious.
Mr. Woolas: What is amazing about the arguments of the conservatives with a small "c" is that they hark back to a golden age when Parliament really was the power in the landbut it was not. In the second Churchill premiership, the then Prime Minister was also the Leader of the House. As Prime Minister and Leader of the House, he would come to the Chamber and tell both Front Benches exactly what they were going to do and when they were going to do it; indeed, he used to hold the Adjournment debate, too. Did they have Programming Sub-Committees in those days? To coin a phrase, did they heckthey used to sort it out in smoke-filled rooms. If that is the golden age to which right hon. and hon. Members refer, we can go back to that
This Government have given more transparency to how we timetable business in the House than any previous Government, to such an extent that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House more commonly has arguments with his own Whips Office than with the traditionalists among the Opposition. If only right hon. and hon. Gentlemen would accept that point, we would be able to move forward.
Sir Robert Smith: I wonder whether, having listened to the debate, the Deputy Leader of the House is any more disposed to accept amendments from the Procedure Committee. Does he recognise that in rejecting them he is likely to reduce support for the final motion?
Mr. Woolas: The answer to that question is obvious. The reasons for our choosing to accept many of the Committee's recommendations, but to object to a small number of them, have been set out by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. There is honest disagreement on them.
Sir Nicholas Winterton:
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's speech with some concern. We are debating the Government's motions and the Procedure Committee's amendments to them. While the Leader of the House spent some time in seeking to respond to the amendments, the Deputy Leader of the House is not dealing with them at all. May I remind him that the Procedure Committee has not objected to the Government's deciding on an out date from Standing Committee for a Bill? What we are saying is that the total handling of programming should be genuinely more democratic, and result from in-depth consultation
26 Oct 2004 : Column 1377
and a knowledge of what the House as a whole thinks of a Bill on Second Reading. If he would attend to that, he would probably be more sympathetic to amendments that I think make programming much more acceptable.
The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) asked for a commitment that programming would not be used on the Constitution for Europe (Referendum) Bill. I cannot give him that commitment. The arguments for sensible programming and sensible timetabling will apply equally to that Bill when we reach it, but that has not been decided yet.
We heard some fascinating confessions from the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). He confessed that he had swallowed his opinion on many occasions, and that he had been a bully; but I think his main point was that he had lost respect for those whom he was bullying. I felt that he went rather over the top when he said that the arguments before the House this afternoon were undermining democratic society.
I want to say a little in support of the Whips Office. It is, I think, the experience of Members on both sides of the House that without the Whips Officewithout the usual channels, and the ability to have a private conversation about the business of the Housewe would never get anything done. Of course the rights of minorities and minority points of view must be protected in all parts of the House, but whatever system of programmingor absence of programmingwe had, we would have to reach a decision eventually. As everyone knows, without the Whips Offices nothing would get done and nothing would be decided.
I can provide the reassurance for which many hon. Members have asked that this is genuinely a free vote. Hansard will record tomorrow that not all members of the Government Whips Office will support all the Government's recommendations. I assure the House that there are debates even there. Members of the Whips Offices will of course take part in the telling, and will advise Members on the procedures; but there is no pressure from Government on Labour Back Benchers to vote in one way or the other. The strength of our arguments is our weapon, as always. I reject the description of the Whips Offices as the "dark forces".
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst talked of the relationship between the House and the Executive. He said that he had experience of it from different perspectivesas a Front Bencher, a Minister and a Back Bencher. I respect that experience, but he must surely agree thatas I said earlier, and as my right hon. Friend saidthere are tensions in the intersection between the Executive and the legislature. There are bound to be disagreements. Is that not the nature of our Parliament? In other countries, the Executive and the legislature are separate. If that were the position here, elected Members of Parliament would have less ability to scrutinise legislation. If that is the road that the right hon. Gentleman wants to go down, he should be honest about that.
26 Oct 2004 : Column 1378
Hon. Members asked about early-day motions. The idea of tagging early-day motions merits further consideration. The difficulty we have with automatic entitlement to Westminster Hall debates is that it would diminish the rights of individual Members and minorities. At present, we all have an equal chance of securing a Westminster Hall debate, but if the number of supporters was the criterion for allocation, I suspect that early-day motions would quickly become a tool of the Whips Officethe very dark forces that the hon. Members advancing the idea are keen to avoid.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made a powerful speech in which she stood up for the rights of Back Benchers. I hope that she will give credence to this argument. The statistics and evidence that we have presented not just in the debate but to the Procedure Committee show categorically that more time for scrutiny of clauses has been achieved with sensible timetabling. I, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the Government agree that, in the early stages especiallyand still today in some casesprogramming did not work. It was detrimental in certain instances. Standing Committees that I was involved in had programming that did not work, but month after month, year after year, programming has bedded in. It has become broadly accepted across the Houseof course, there are exceptions to this viewthat it is sensible, particularly for outside bodies that wish to come to scrutinise what is going on here.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) pointed out that the Procedure Committee's report was unanimous. We accept that, of course. The Committee has a majority of Labour Members. He is right about thatthat is one reason why we have listened and accepted many of the recommendationsbut it still comes back to an honest disagreement between MPs and the business managers, who have a responsibility to get legislation through, properly scrutinised, as the shadow Leader of the House said. That is why we accepted many of the recommendationsthere is all-party agreement.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall specifically asked whether Back Benchers should be able to influence programme motions. That goes to the heart of the matter. This answers some of the points that the distinguished Chairman of the Committee has raised. There is an assumption behind his arguments and behind the amendments that, if the role of the Whips and the usual channels were taken away, we could free Back Benchers from the responsibilities and duties of timetabling legislation. Frankly, that view is naive. If some of these changes were implemented, they would quickly be replaced by new usual channels functions, which would compromise Back Benchers' independence. We cannot get away from the fact that the House is elected on party lines, with an official Opposition and the Government in the majority.
We talked about deferred Divisions. Those who support deferred Divisions would point out that they at least give Members who could not attend the debate the opportunity to read the proceedings in Hansard. It is preferable for a Member to attend the debate in the Chamber, but at least a deferred Division gives that opportunityit is for the convenience of Members. That is right: it would surely be wrong to make our procedures deliberately for the inconvenience of
26 Oct 2004 : Column 1379
Members. That is why deferred Divisionsan experiment that many Members opposed very strongly when it was first suggestedhave become our customary practice. I bet that in 25 years' time, when a young Deputy Leader of the House tries to change that practice, traditionalists will argue that it should be kept because it is a custom of this House. I hope that I am here to listen to that debate.
Carry-over has proved a success, as has pre-legislative scrutiny, which has been accepted in all parts of the House as a better way to scrutinise Bills. We intend to continue with both. The question has been asked
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|