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On September sittings, I have always taken the view that it is wrong for the House to be absent from this place for a quarter of the year. It is not right that Government should not be scrutinised during that time while we are all away in our constituencies. My problem with the Leader of the House’s proposal is that removing the possibility of September sittings will lead to stasis. That is why I shall support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walsall, North, as I would have supported that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) had it been selected. Having said that, I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, North that we should not be too dogmatic about the form that this should take. There must be careful discussion between the parties. As the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) said, we need to reconsider radically the whole
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parliamentary year to see how we can use time effectively to reduce the gaps between our sitting times. If that means adjusting the party conference season, so be it. Let us go to the parties and say: “We want to do this; please accommodate the requirements of the House of Commons.”

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has thought of my point in advance. Would not right hon. and hon. Members find the proposed two weeks’ scrutiny of the Executive, which should happen, more attractive if at the same time we proposed scrapping the seaside conferences for the three main parties? They are out of date, too long and no longer fit for purpose, as the Home Secretary might say. Were that a combined package, we might find that we had a majority.

Mr. Heath: Our conference is not a waste of time, because it determines the policy of our party. We have this strange idea that we vote at our conference, so we would have to find an alternative time to hold it.

We need to look sensibly at how we structure the parliamentary year to reduce the gaps. We should accept the fact that important constituency activities go on during the recess for which we need to find capacity. One of my activities—it will not apply to some of those who sit for urban seats—is to go round all the small villages in my constituency. I have about 120 villages and get round about 100 of them in a two-week period. I would not want to lose that opportunity, because it is an important part of my role in keeping in touch with my electorate. However, I do not have to do it in the last two weeks of September; I can arrange my timetable around the parliamentary timetable, as can the parties.

Further to the recess, it is wrong that we have no power to recall Parliament, and we must reconsider that at some stage. It is not satisfactory to leave it in the hands of Ministers. If Members feel sufficiently strongly that there is a matter that should be considered, they should be able to raise that with Mr. Speaker, who should then have the discretion to recall Parliament. One of the consequences of the very long summer recess is that we hear almost immediate calls for a recall. This summer, someone asked for a recall before we had even gone into recess, which must be a record. It is like Christmas—we shall start to think about when we should be recalled in the summer recess before we have started the Easter holidays.

I entirely support the proposals on sub judice matters, coroners’ courts and Select Committee evidence.

On European scrutiny, the House has a huge deficiency and the sooner we get to grips with it the better. I agree with the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) that the meetings of the European Scrutiny Committee should be open; I have not the slightest idea why they are not. That upsets me. It also upsets me that sessions of the European Council of Ministers are closed, not open and transparent, but that is not within our remit.

The proposal on short speeches is sensible. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I say that at the risk of casting opprobrium on myself.

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I will oppose the proposal on the tabling of amendments in Committee. I entirely agree that the tabling of Government amendments at the last minute is not helpful and should be avoided. The Government should have protocols requiring Ministers to table amendments in good time. It should be good practice for Opposition Members to be able to table amendments early as well, but an unreasonable constraint will be imposed on Opposition members of Committees if they must produce amendments so early that they cannot consider them properly.

There is currently a very narrow window between the selection of a Committee and its first sitting. Tuesday sittings often raise questions that can be dealt with by means of amendments at Thursday sittings, but if the House accepts this proposal it will be impossible—other than at the Chairman’s discretion—to table an amendment as a result of a ministerial reply on a Tuesday that can be dealt with on the Thursday. That would restrict the capacity of Opposition parties to hold the Government properly to account and to improve legislation, and I shall therefore resist the proposal.

2.50 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I particularly welcome the motion relating to the legislative process, and the proposal for Bills to be sent to a special Committee that can take evidence directly from those interested in them. I had some direct experience of that in the last Parliament, when the Bill that became the Children and Adoption Act 2006 went to a Joint Committee of both Houses. We took evidence from a range of organisations and experts. I am pleased to say that the then Minister accepted some of our recommendations, and that changes were made to the Bill before it went to a Standing Committee.

That Bill was not uncontroversial, as it introduced new court powers to deal with parents who disobeyed court rulings on contact orders. In the special Committee we were able to consider the best way of legislating in a difficult area without a confrontation between Committee members, which resulted in much better legislation. That was a valuable experience for me as a Member of Parliament, and a direct contradiction of my previous experiences on Standing Committees. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who described some of his own experiences on a Standing Committee.

Ms Butler: Does my hon. Friend agree that special Committees are also an important way of engaging the public with our legislative process? An evidence-based system helps them to feel more connected to Parliament, and more a part of any legislation that we produce here.

Ann Coffey: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, she advanced those arguments powerfully on the Modernisation Committee, of which she is a member.

The other great advantage of special Committees is that they enable organisations with an interest to send representatives to a Committee directly rather than doing what they do now—relying on Committee members to read prepared briefs into the proceedings.
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The advantage for Committee members is that those people in turn can be examined on some of their evidence. An Opposition Member recently complained bitterly about material put out by a children’s organisation, saying that it was untrue and inaccurate.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: It was.

Ann Coffey: The value of a special Committee lies in the fact that an organisation that had produced such evidence could be challenged by Committee members to justify it. As we all know, not everything that organisations say is entirely accurate or, indeed, entirely true.

If Back Benchers believe that Bills will be changed in the light of proper evidence, much more constructive work will be done when proposals are presented to Committees. At present Back Benchers in both Houses do not believe that a Bill can be easily altered once it is in Committee, so they tend to “go through the motions”. Standing Committees are hugely important to the making of laws. They are not given much of the limelight of publicity, but they engage hours of people’s time, and what emerges from them is the law that we have made. That is one of the most important things that we do as Members of Parliament. If we do not believe that we can change what we do in any way, it is hardly surprising that Members themselves sometimes become disengaged from the legislative process.

When I visit schools and am asked what I do as a Member of Parliament, I say, “Well, Members of Parliament make the laws.” Part of our problem is that to most, if not all, members of the public, the process is not understandable. They therefore do not understand how they can influence the way in which we make laws, although they care passionately about some of the proposals that we may or may not advance. We talk of disengagement from our democracy. We cannot engage with the public unless what we do is seen to be transparent, and unless the public feel that they can play a part other than by electing us once every four years. Most people currently believe that that is the only way in which they can influence what happens.

Like other Members, I receive hundreds of requests to sign early-day motions every year. Recently I have been receiving even more, generated by postcard and e-mail campaigns—initiated, usually, by lobby groups. The public understand what signing an early-day motion means, and they believe that it has an impact on what happens in this place. That is not entirely true, of course: thousands of early-day motions are signed each year, and few of them have any influence at all. Nevertheless, the public understand what is meant by asking a Member of Parliament to sign an early-day motion.

The special Committee system will enable my constituents, some of whom have considerable personal and expert experience in particular fields, to contribute to the passage of legislation. Presumably they will able to submit written evidence and be called to give evidence on matters of which they have special knowledge. They will see that as a real, understandable way of contributing to debates on legislation and to the parliamentary process, enabling them to connect with this place. That can only be good for us and for democracy.

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I believe that modernisation must be about changing our procedures, making them more transparent to allow wider engagement with the public. That, for me, is the modernisation agenda, and these proposals for change are an important step along the modernisation road.

I am very interested in the citizenship curriculum. In my constituency, teachers are doing excellent work. Many schools have school councils, and the children are involved in projects. We have an active youth council. Only last week I attended a meeting with some young people to discuss transport with representatives of the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority and Stagecoach. The young people made very interesting comments, having spent a great deal of time thinking about what they wanted to say. The problem then was where to take the concerns that they had raised, and where they perceived those concerns to have been taken.

It is disappointing that a recent Ofsted report referred to a poor national standard of teaching in schools. That is not my experience in the constituency. It cannot be right for young people to leave school with excellent A-levels or GCSEs and no idea how our democracy works, but it is not enough for us to ask for higher standards of teaching if the young people to whom I talked on the youth council do not know how to contribute their comments to the democratic process. The two things that we must do should go hand in hand. We have to offer engagement to the public, and also ask for the standard of citizenship teaching in our schools to improve.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for schools to be able to arrange visits to the Palace of Westminster? The cost of visiting the Houses of Parliament is a big hurdle for many of my constituents in North Durham. Would it be helpful if support could be given to schools and youth groups that wish to come and see the House in action, and how our democracy works?

Ann Coffey: We on the Modernisation Committee discussed at length how we could support school visits. I know that the education department of the House of Commons is visiting various constituencies to try to find out their needs in accessing to Parliament. After it has finished those visits, I hope that it will report back to the Committee.

Ms Butler: The Youth Parliament is seeking a debate in the House of Commons. The national Youth Parliament includes all the schools from around the UK. That might be planned for the recess.

Ann Coffey: Yes, as my hon. Friend says, there is a lot of interest in Parliament among young people; theirs is not a totally disengaged generation, although that is sometimes the perception.

We must find a way of ensuring that the important citizenship curriculum in schools is taught properly and well, but at the same time ensure that we modernise Parliament so that young people, whose
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interest in it we have encouraged through that citizens’ agenda, feel that they can have some input into this place.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has introduced the modernisation proposals, and I look forward to there being many more of them, particularly to those that might arise out of our current inquiry into the role of the Back Bencher, which I know that he welcomes.

3.2 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I shall start by referring to the two motions relating to sub judice, but before I get on to the meat of my argument, I wish to thank all members of the Procedure Committee for their support and hard work. It does not involve trips to exotic places overseas, and often there is no media coverage, but, nevertheless, it is very important. I also join the Leader of the House in paying tribute to my predecessor as Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who I am pleased to see in his place.

Parliament’s sub judice rule effectively prevents debate on individual cases while they are active before the courts. The rule is set out in a resolution that was agreed by each House in 2001. Our predecessor Committee reported on the resolution as a whole in March 2005 and, while recognising that it has sometimes created difficulties for Members, particularly in delaying debates, that report did not recommend any change to the rule.

We decided to return to the subject mainly because of representations that we received from Members that the implementation of the rule was preventing them from debating issues that deserved to be raised in Parliament. There was particular concern about coroners courts, where an inquest could be opened that then adjourned for months, and even years. One case that was drawn to our attention was adjourned for more than two years while police inquiries and other investigations were carried out. I shall return to the issue of delay.

It was put to us that the House authorities were repeatedly over-cautious in the advice that they gave, and that, as a consequence, Members were finding that any hint of active court proceedings was enough to prevent debate or questioning not only on the case itself, but on related issues of general policy. That is not the purpose of the rule, and Members should not be given the impression that it is.

As we pursued our inquiry, we discovered a number of reasons why that impression had been created. First, the rule is, in its entirety, subject to the discretion of the Chair. Mr. Speaker has the power to set it aside if it is his opinion that a particular case is of sufficient importance that debate, or questions relating to it, should be allowed. Our predecessor Committee recommended in its report that where Members believe the rule to be unreasonably impeding the work of Parliament they should refer the matter to Mr. Speaker and ask him to exercise his discretion.

However, many Members have not always understood how they should go about asking Mr. Speaker to exercise his discretion. In particular, some Members did not appreciate that the discretion
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can be exercised only by Mr. Speaker himself. It cannot be negotiated with Clerks in the Table Office. We have therefore recommended that the Table Office should produce a short printed guide to the rule, which I hope will provide a clear explanation of that, and of other aspects of the rule.

Secondly, the House authorities have, perhaps, been somewhat over-cautious in their advice on the implementation of the rule. That is because—to be fair to them, and to borrow the frank words of the former Clerk of the House, Sir Roger Sands—

This is how he explains what he meant by that: for example, some Members have, applied for an Adjournment debate on a general matter of public policy but without any warning produced

I hope that the House will agree that Mr. Speaker cannot be expected to exercise his discretion to allow debate if he cannot rely on the Member concerned to keep to the agreed terms of that debate.

For that reason, we have recommended that there should be a new Standing Order that explicitly gives Mr. Speaker power to direct a Member to resume his or her seat if he or she oversteps the agreed mark in relation to sub judice matters. It is proposed that that power also be extended to those who chair Westminster Hall debates and non-legislative Standing Committees—or “General Committees”, as we are soon likely to call them.

It is my Committee’s belief that, armed with the specific powers in the new Standing Order, Mr. Speaker will be much better placed to exercise his discretion in a greater number of cases, and in more sensitive cases he will, we hope, be able to agree to allow a Member to have a debate, its scope having been agreed beforehand by the Member concerned.

Mr. Maples: On discretion, the Order of the House regarding sub judice restricts Mr. Speaker’s discretion to a case that

In the recommendations of my right hon. Friend’s Committee, it is simply said that the phrase “national importance” in the resolution should be interpreted reasonably. Why, in view of the other things that he has said and the submissions that I and others made to the predecessor Committee, did he not recommend that that part of the resolution should be amended so that the definition encompasses only the facts in dispute in the court case, rather than all the peripheral issues, which currently get banned?

Mr. Knight: We took the view that it was better to proceed by a moderate degree, rather than to suggest, for example, the wholesale abolition of the rule or a wide exemption from the rule. I think that this will be acceptable to Members, should the House agree to the suggestion tonight, for the reasons that I have partly outlined and shall continue to outline, and also for another reason that I shall refer to later, to do with delay. The issue of delay, too, was causing a great deal of concern in all parts of the House.

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