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29 Jun 2005 : Column 473WH—continued

29 Jun 2005 : Column 474WH

House of Commons (Ceremonial)

4.44 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Obviously, there are far more important subjects than this one, such as the very important one that we debated yesterday in the main Chamber, but that is no reason why it should not occasionally be debated. I want to make it clear that anything that I say should not be taken as a criticism of any individual officer or official, as what is done or worn in the Chamber is certainly not decided by such people.

In the bundle of background papers that I requested from the Library was a copy of an exchange that I had with the then Leader of the House on 22 June 1966, when I raised the subject of Black Rod interrupting the Chamber's proceedings to request or command our presence in the House of Lords so that Royal Assent could be given to Bills. Those who know me will not be surprised to hear that following my election that year, I was not altogether enthusiastic about the procedure.

Records show that in a 12-month period at that time, Black Rod, who was, of course, carrying out his duties, had interrupted Members in that way no fewer than 11 times. As we know, that practice was abolished by the Royal Assent Act 1967, and the current practice is for the Speaker to notify the House of Royal Assent. One might ask why that was not done before. Even those who favour carrying on traditions and who oppose change, do not, as far as I can see, argue that changes to such practices should be reversed. No doubt some argued, "Why should there be any change? It has gone on for years," and so on, but once that common-sense change was made and the Speaker began to notify the House without our proceedings being interrupted, the change was accepted.

There is one practice that I find very odd indeed, although I reiterate that I do not criticise the person concerned, who is one of my hon. Friends. Sometimes, the Government Whip who also holds the title of Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household enters the Chamber in a morning coat carrying a long stick—or wand, as it may be called—to inform Members of a message from the Queen, and in carrying out that duty, he does a lot of bowing and so on. It is all done in a good-humoured way and takes a short time—I do not say that it should be discontinued because it takes up a lot of time—but I see no necessity for it. I see it as pantomime and do not believe that it shows great respect for the Queen, to whom I always want great respect to be given, as do all hon. Members.

Again, the inevitable question is: why is the practice necessary? What is the point of it and what justification is there for it? Surely, the remedy would be for the Speaker to notify the House when there is a message from the Queen. As with the end of the other practice I mentioned, I very much doubt whether, when this unnecessary practice ends, anyone will argue for its reintroduction.

Take, for example, the way in which the House of Commons is involved in the state opening of Parliament. We all know from long experience that on that occasion we sit in the Chamber—there are added frills here and there—and wait for Black Rod to arrive and command our attendance in the House of Peers for
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the Queen's Speech, which he does in due course. I hope that this question is not too revolutionary, but is that really necessary in the 21st century? Those who are familiar with the story of "The Prisoner of Zenda"— I suppose one has to be of a certain age even to know about Anthony Hope's novel—and particularly those who have seen one of the film versions, of which there have been at least two, will compare what happens in the scene involving all the ceremonies in Ruritania with what happens here.

I find it very odd that it is necessary, at the beginning of the 21st century, to have such pomp and ceremony. For example, could not the speech simply be read? That is one skill that we all have: the ability to read. Again, I am making no criticism whatever of the Head of State—obviously not—but if there is to be a state opening, why can that not be confined simply to the opening of Parliament after the general election? During that particular Parliament, the Government could outline their policy in a modern way. After all, even pupils of 15 or so who study politics at GCSE and A-level know that the Queen's Speech is, as it must be in a democracy, simply the Government's policy for the next 12 or 18 months. That is obvious. So why not simply have a document in which the Government state that they are going to do this, that and the other? Why not have less ceremony and pomp and just get on with things?

In the Chamber itself, there is a lot of dressing up. I have emphasised that I am not criticising anyone, because if there is to be a change a decision must be made by the House. When we look around the Chamber—unlike in Westminster Hall—we see wigs, knee breeches and silver-buckled shoes. It is interesting that Betty Boothroyd decided that she would not wear a wig. The present Speaker does not wear a wig. Parliamentary democracy has not been undermined as a result. It could be argued that it is possible for the occupant of the Chair in the main Chamber to wear the same sort of clothes as you are wearing, Mr. Gale. In Committee, the authority of the Chair is such that it must be accepted by us all. It is certainly not a question of someone having to dress up in order for us to recognise their authority. Likewise, the Clerk in Westminster Hall does not dress up, unlike in the main Chamber.

Up until the end of the 18th century, there was basically no difference between the dress of Members and that of officials. Anyone coming into Parliament up until then would not have seen any difference at all. Then came trousers. As a result of Members' increasingly wearing trousers instead of knee breeches, a difference arose. That grew more marked during the 19th and 20th centuries.

There is also a totally harmless practice that goes on at the end of the parliamentary day. I sometimes wonder whether even Members who have been here some time are aware of the fact that at the end of the parliamentary day, the senior Doorkeeper, carrying out his duty, shouts out, "Who goes home?" No one responds. As I am sure you are perfectly aware, Mr. Gale, that custom arose during the mid-19th century. It was unsafe in those days—a lot remains the same—for Members to go up Whitehall individually. After the cry of, "Who goes
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home?", Members gathered in the Members' Lobby and were duly escorted by a police officer. If I responded to that cry and came into the Members' Lobby to wait to be escorted, the senior Doorkeeper would start to wonder. Again, the tradition is totally harmless, so we could say, "Why worry?", but why continue with a tradition that has absolutely no purpose?

I hope that, since some modernisation has undoubtedly occurred since 1997, we will consider some of the practices that I have mentioned: the dress, the code and the state opening. It is more likely that change will occur as a result of a Labour Government than otherwise. As I said, it took the Labour Government in 1967 to make the change that allowed Royal Assent to be given by the Speaker.

Finally, what goes on in the Chamber—we cover many important issues, as we did yesterday—does not make any difference. Of course, it does not make a difference if Officers of the House wear wigs; I agree that it is totally irrelevant. I do not suggest otherwise. However, if we want to give the impression that we are a modern institution—if we are so keen as to lecture other places about modernisation, ending restrictive practices and the rest—should we not look at ourselves, and bring ourselves more into the modern age? Would not it help Parliament?

If I may be so bold, I suggest that we can learn one or two lessons from the devolved institutions. I am sure that the Minister is enthusiastic about the Scottish Parliament. If he is not, he certainly will not say so.

4.55 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on securing this debate. I am sure that many hon. Members will want to pay tribute to the work that he has done over the 39 years since he took up the cause. He and others persuaded the House to accept some of the numerous changes that have brought our practices up to date, and they have undoubtedly made the House a better place.

My hon. Friend raised the matter more recently than 22 June 1966. During the Foreign Affairs debate on the previous Queen's Speech on 24 November, he took some time out to inform the House of his views. Today, he has brought us up to date. Of course, he does more than talk. He gave written evidence on his views to the Modernisation Committee the year before last so that it could reach a considered view and make recommendations. He also raised the subject at business questions.

I am pleased that during those years, right hon. and hon. Members decided to act on some of the issues raised. My hon. Friend mentioned the steps taken to ensure that the ceremonies surrounding Black Rod were improved and modernised better to facilitate the business of the House, which ensured more time for debate and less time for ceremony. He has been knocking at an open door—perhaps the same door that is ritually slammed in Black Rod's face. I know that that ritual has given many hon. Members some satisfaction, but others, probably including my hon. Friend, feel that the time has come to put such vicarious pleasures aside.

My hon. Friend and I remember well that on points of order during Divisions it was necessary for the hon. Member raising the point of order to don a top hat. A
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pantomime top hat was kept handy by the Speaker's Office, and the Clerks would pass it to the Member making the point of order. I remember Eric Heffer, our late colleague, who was a rather large man, donning a small but high top hat, which probably caused some ribaldry on a rather serious point of order. Again, right hon. and hon. Members were persuaded that the days of the top hat were over, and raising a point of order has been more formalised and brought up to date with modern practice.

My hon. Friend and I were strong objectors to the use of the word "strangers" in the House to describe the general public who elect us and pay our salaries. Again, the House authorities listened to our representations and phased out the use of the word "strangers", replacing it with more acceptable terms for the 21st century, such as public gallery and public entrance. The cause that he has taken up has not been without fruit.

My hon. Friend's recommendations are less significant to the workings of the House than some of the more tangible changes that he and others have campaigned for and that have been delivered—I think that he used the word "frippery", but if he did not, I hope he will not mind my putting that word in his mouth. The strengthening of the Select Committees, for instance, has done more to bring the Executive to account and scrutinise their workings. The twice-yearly questioning of the Prime Minister before the Liaison Committee is another important innovation that has helped to strengthen the democratic accountability of the person at the pinnacle of the Government.

We have introduced other helpful mechanisms both for Members and for the wider public, such as explanatory notes on Bills and memorandums on statutory instruments. We have introduced regulatory impact assessments to help us better understand the cost and other impacts of measures proposed by the Government. In the time that we have been in Parliament, we have ensured that our proceedings are televised, and the proceedings of the Parliament and its Committees are now webcast too. That general extension of accountability and information has proceeded, and my hon. Friend should be thanked for his strong support, along with other hon. Members from all parties.

My hon. Friend put this Adjournment debate—which is on a not insignificant subject—in some proportion when he mentioned that he did not seek to set it alongside some of the major Bills and weighty matters that we have to discuss and that the public are interested in. If he does not mind my saying so, that
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showed in him a great sense of balance and perspective. I am glad that I have had a chance to hear his views first hand, and I thank him for his courtesy in informing us of his most recent ideas. I know that those views will be studied by other right hon. and hon. Members, and like him, I know that it is in the hands of those Members as to which of the recommendations are introduced.

Mr. Winnick : If my hon. Friend takes up one of my points, it should be the Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household—the Government Whip—delivering messages. Could we try within the next few months to see what could be done to discontinue that practice, so that Queen's messages are instead notified to the House by the Speaker? That should not be too controversial, certainly among Labour Members, who are in the majority.

Nigel Griffiths : My hon. Friend mentioned majorities, and his idea could become a party political issue as Labour has a majority in the House of Commons. I would be loth to go down that route, as my view is that the House should reach a consensus. He rightly pointed out that the use of a rod—which as a young MP I mistook for a billiard cue—may seem inappropriate to some hon. Members, and that is certainly his point of view. However, the correspondence that I have received in the short time that I have been Deputy Leader of the House of Commons has covered a number of issues, but ceremonial practices is not one of them. However, now that my hon. Friend has raised it, his views will be widely circulated in the House through Hansard, and an early-day motion—I hope that it would be an all-party early-day motion—would allow the strength of feeling to be assessed and judged. He knows that the strength of feeling reflected in early-day motions can move things forward in the House.

By raising the subject, my hon. Friend has ensured that the fresh approach that he brought to the House when he was first elected in 1966 continues to this day, as does his concern for ensuring that this place is not hidebound or left behind in the general trend of other institutions to embrace more up-to-date ways of operating. He ensures that such matters are still at the forefront of MPs' minds. With the setting up of the new Select Committees he may feel that the Modernisation Committee should put a high priority on considering such matters and he may want to write to those Committees to ask them to put those things on their agenda. We will be delighted to consider them carefully and respond accordingly.

Question put and agreed to.

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