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3 Nov 2004 : Column 369



3 Nov 2004 : Column 370

Sessional Orders and Resolutions

4.17 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move,

I had looked forward to seeing headlines in tomorrow's newspapers stating that we had agreed to cut our mileage rates, but somehow I think that that might not happen.

The motion takes note of the Procedure Committee's report on Sessional Orders and resolutions, published last November, and the Government's reply to it. It approves the proposals set out in paragraphs 9, 10 and 25 of the report for changes in the practice of the House at the beginning of the Session. I am grateful to the Procedure Committee, and to its Chairman, for the advice we have been given.

As the Committee's report explains, for nearly 200 years—and longer in some cases—the House has agreed to three orders and three resolutions at the beginning of each Session. They relate to elections, witnesses, the Metropolitan police, and votes and proceedings. The text appears on page 3 of the Committee's report.

Since 1852, these matters have been taken just before the debate on the reply to the Queen's Speech. They are proposed from the Chair without notice, and have occasionally given rise to debate.

At the suggestion of Mr. Speaker, the Procedure Committee conducted a thorough inquiry to consider whether the Sessional Orders and resolutions should be abolished and updated, and came to the very clear conclusion that our traditional practice should change.

First, the Committee considered the First Reading of the Outlawries Bill—a

that traditionally is taken before the debate on the Queen's Speech as a symbolic assertion of the House's freedom to consider matters of its own choosing. The Committee notes that the practice takes only a few seconds and recommends that it should continue. The Government agree.

Secondly, the Committee considered the Sessional Orders and resolutions on elections, witnesses and the Votes and Proceedings. It found that the resolution about bribery and the provision for Members to withdraw during any debate on any dispute on their return are obsolete and misleading, as responsibility for election offences and disputes now belongs to the courts, not to the House; that the provision about double returns—two Members being returned for the same seat—relates to an event that cannot now take place; that the order for the printing of the Votes and
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Proceedings—the formal daily minutes of the House—is unnecessary and that the provision that the Speaker should peruse them before they are printed is not normally carried out; and that the resolutions against tampering with witnesses and giving false evidence have some value as statements of intent, but add nothing to the House's powers to deal with contempts or, in the case of tampering with witnesses or the giving of false evidence on oath, the statutory powers. The Committee, therefore, recommends that the passing of the Sessional Orders and resolutions relating to elections, witnesses and the Votes and Proceedings be discontinued. The Government agree. The motion seeks the House's agreement to that change.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I hope that at some stage the Leader of the House will tell us why he thinks that those splendid, if slightly archaic, traditions are in any way harmful. This is beginning to look like yet another of the ghastly modernisations that seem to be becoming commonplace, so rather than simply reading out the traditions as if to say that they are self-evidently a bad thing, will he tell us why he thinks it necessary to do away with them?

Mr. Hain: The right hon. Gentleman has no doubt looked carefully at the Procedure Committee's report, so he will know that the Committee recommended the changes—and I agree.

The Committee found that the provision, in the elections order, about Members returned for more than one place is unlikely ever to be needed. It last happened in 1910, but the Committee recommended that the possibility be dealt with once and for all by the House deciding, when agreeing to its report, that all Members who are returned for two or more places in any part of the United Kingdom should choose for which of the places they will serve, within one week after it appears that there is no question about their election for that place. The motion contains that provision.

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