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1 Nov 2006 : Column 344

Mr. Kevan Jones: I accept the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes that Members could apply for an Adjournment debate and then introduce information or subjects that were not in its title. However, will the Speaker or the Chair be given guidance on how to interpret what is being put forward? A Member could bring something forward and at that time the Speaker, or the Chair of Westminster Hall, might not have detailed knowledge of that individual case. How will the Speaker and the Chair be able to decide whether what has been put forward breaks the rule?

Mr. Knight: If I may, I shall deal with that issue a little later, because a development is taking place, to which I shall refer, that has great bearing on it. If, once I have dealt with it, the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied, I invite him to intervene on me again.

If the House agrees to these proposals, I should expect to see fewer refusals to allow a debate where there is an issue to discuss that can be dealt with without compromising pending cases. In approving our report and the introduction of the Standing Order, the House will be establishing a new and firmer base from which the Speaker will be able to exercise his discretion, confident that he has both the power of the Standing Order and the support of the House.

We did consider whether the rule itself was wrong or needed amendment, but like our predecessor Committee, we concluded that the rule should stand, that there was no need for a change to the wording of the resolution, and that coroners courts should remain within the scope of the House’s sub judice rules. These conclusions are based, first, on the risk of prejudice to specific cases or inquests, and, secondly, on the ground of comity or non-interference with the judiciary.

The Committee also considered in detail the issue of delay, which has been a particular problem with coroners’ inquests. As I mentioned earlier, an inquest can be opened and then adjourned for months or even years. It is ironic that if a constituent is seriously injured it is likely that the Member concerned will have no difficulty in raising the issue in the House, but if that constituent is killed rather than seriously injured, because the death results in an inquest, which is likely to be opened and then adjourned, the matter instantly becomes sub judice. We considered whether it would be practical to establish a trigger point later than the opening of the inquest for the application of the sub judice rule to coroners courts. I am afraid that in the light of the evidence that we took—including from the Attorney-General—we were forced to conclude that there is no alternative point to which the trigger could be connected.

We did, and I do, recognise that these delays are very frustrating for Members. However, under the Contempt Of Court Act 1981, the length of time between an alleged contempt and the proceedings of the case itself is an important criterion by which the extent of the contempt is judged. Although I do not believe that that Act can or should be applied to proceedings in this House, we do recommend in our report that Mr. Speaker take particular account of the question of delay in considering whether to exercise his discretion. Moreover, I believe that the Government’s proposals in the draft Coroners Bill for a more
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professional coroner service and a chief coroner’s office offers the prospect of more timely and accurate advice on the state of individual inquests than has previously been possible. I hope that that partly answers the point raised earlier by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones).

The problems associated with delay might be resolved in the not too distant future. I received a letter from the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs that is very relevant to the issue of delay, and I should like to share part of it with the House. I had told her that the Committee was looking into this matter, and particularly the very long delays that often occur when inquests are adjourned. In referring to the draft Coroners Bill, she said the following:

That is very important. She continues:

I hope that the problem that some Members have experienced of an inquest being adjourned for a very long time, and of their being unable, therefore, to debate the issue, might soon be consigned to history.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I commend my right hon. Friend on his Committee’s report? Does he agree with me that if Members of this House are to do their duty on behalf of their constituents and of other constituency interests, his proposal is absolutely essential? Does he further agree that the very telling and extremely lucid evidence that the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) gave to the Committee when I chaired it—and, I believe, subsequently—in respect of a constituency case has had an important influence on his Committee and its decision, which will ensure that Members can do their job in this place?

Mr. Knight: I am very grateful for the support of my hon. Friend, who is a distinguished former Chairman of the Committee, and I agree with what he says about the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble). I hope that the very encouraging letter that I received from the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs will mean that in future, when a coroner realises that a considerable period of time will elapse before the evidence is assembled, he will open an investigation, not an inquest. That will mean that in the interim period, issues of wider concern could be discussed in this House.

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Mr. Kevan Jones: That clarifies the position and is helpful to those of us who have experienced the lengthy delays associated with coroners courts. However, what will happen when the complaint is about not an individual case, but a multitude of cases—in other words, when the core complaint is about the coroner himself? In such a situation, reference might have to be made to individual cases in order to argue that the coroner in question was at fault. For example, there is one coroner in the north-east who was appallingly slow in dealing with inquests.

Mr. Knight: The matter is not yet cut and dried. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs goes on to say in her letter that the Lord Chief Justice is being consulted, and I should hope that concerns such as those expressed by the hon. Gentleman will be examined by the right hon. and learned Lady and the Lord Chief Justice before they finalise the scope and terms of the Coroners Bill, which I understand will be pursued initially as a draft pre-legislative Bill. The hon. Gentleman can therefore pursue these matters further when we debate that Bill. However, this development suggests to me that the Government are looking at this issue thoroughly and sensitively, and for that they should be congratulated.

I therefore hope that, for the reasons that I have outlined, the House will decide not to divide on this aspect of today’s business and will instead give the proposals their full support.

I welcome the report of the Modernisation Committee, of which I am a member; indeed, I took part in the deliberations that led to the report’s formation. I particularly support the proposal that pre-legislative scrutiny should become more widespread; that is good news for the parliamentary process and for effective scrutiny. Too often, when Ministers bring a Bill to this House, they are unwilling to countenance changes to it, regarding such changes as almost a personal attack on themselves or their policy. Having a pre-legislative phase to draft Bills will, I hope, mean that we get more debate and discussion, and a greater willingness on the part of Ministers to accept amendments where they are deemed appropriate.

Mr. Straw: It is precisely that characteristic that is also the advantage of the new Committee stage of Bills. Speaking from direct experience of asylum and immigration legislation, because there were four evidence-taking sessions, I was able to withdraw gracefully a couple of proposals that we all thought were very good ideas in opposition, but which turned out to be rather less than good on further examination. I was able to withdraw them far more easily than if they had come up in the adversarial part of the Committee stage, or on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Knight: That is a powerful point. Anything that allows a Minister to change tack without losing face should be encouraged.

Moving on to the Public Bill Committee proposals, I again fully support what is in the report. I hope that it will lead to less yah-boo politics at the Committee stage and a greater opportunity for constructive scrutiny and enlightened debate.

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In his opening remarks, the Leader of the House treated the House to his experience when he first came here as an Opposition Member. When I was the Government Whip on a Standing Committee that was about to be appointed, I had a list of names and showed it to the Chief Whip. He said, “Why do you want to put him on your Committee?” I said, “He knows something about the subject.” He said, “Yes, that is a very good reason for keeping him off the Committee.” We should move on from the days when Government members of committees were told to shut up and keep quiet and Opposition Members felt that they had to talk and talk to fill the time. We can do better. I believe that the proposals in the report will show that that is the case.

The Modernisation Committee report contains a suggestion that we introduce the innovation of requiring Members to table an explanatory note on their amendments. That is an interesting suggestion. My Committee is happy to look at it, including in the context of the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who was worried about extending the time for tabling amendments. If we can find a way of having a satisfactory system for tabling explanatory notes to amendments, some of the concerns about a raft of amendments being tabled at the last minute, particularly where they refer to other legislation and therefore are not immediately intelligible, may be allayed.

On the issue of September sittings, I realise that there are differing views on the subject. I want to share with the House some of the discussions I had when I was shadow Deputy Leader of the House to the late Eric Forth, who delegated to me all the responsibility for dealing with the then Leader of the House on that issue; the Leader of the House at that time was the late Robin Cook. Although in debate he obviously made the point about holding the Government to account, Robin Cook's main concern—in fact, it was an irritant with him—was that every year the press had the headline, “MPs away on a three-month holiday”. His argument to me was that, if we had a system where we came back for two weeks, and the recess after that time was a constituency and conference recess, the press would not be able to say that MPs had gone away for three months’ holiday. Judged by that aspect of it, the experiment has been a total failure because, in the years when we had September sittings, we still had the headline, “MPs have gone on a three-month holiday”.

Malcolm Bruce: I take the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making, but does not he think that we should not be concerned about that just because of what the press say? Many of us take the view that it is unacceptable that the House is away for 11 weeks and not calling the Government to account.

Mr. Knight: That is a fair view. I said at the outset that there are differing opinions on the matter. Having served in a Government Whips Office, I just feel that, for the business managers, it is difficult to get substantial business marshalled for a period when the House is sitting for only two weeks. One has to find out where Ministers are and then discuss with the Opposition where the shadow Ministers are. I was rather of the view on the occasions when we sat in
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September that, for most of the time, considering the business we were dealing with, it was like treading water.

It is not cost-effective to bring the House back for two weeks and for us to go away again. Many hon. Members—I am not one of them—like to go abroad on fact-finding visits, which they can undertake only in the recess. They found the September sittings disruptive from that point of view.

Ann Coffey: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the additional difficulty in respect of finding substantive business may be that the other place does not sit in September?

Mr. Knight: I would not have thought that that was a particular problem, but I know that business managers on the Government side had extreme difficulty in bringing forward matters that the House would regard as substantial during that two-week period.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: May I raise a matter that has just been touched on and that is the need for Members of Parliament to have bilateral contact with and bilateral visits to countries throughout the world? It is an important part of Parliament's duty to be in touch with countries throughout the world. The work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the British-American Parliamentary Group is very important. The Whips in this House are less and less prepared to allow people to go abroad unless there is total parity between the political parties. That makes the work of those groups increasingly difficult. Is that not something that should be taken into account when we consider September sittings? A great many of those visits take place in September.

Mr. Knight: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Business managers on the Government side now have a far easier job than I had when I was in that position, because our majority went down to three and, with defections and deaths, it went down to zero. Current business managers have a certain luxury, which I envy; I never had it. My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the IPU is allowed to continue because of the benefits of contact with politicians and parliamentarians around the globe.

John Bercow: My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the shadow Leader of the House, was at best ambivalent about and perhaps, at worst, mildly resistant to the establishment of a business Committee of the House to take responsibility for programming out of the hands of the Executive and to put it into genuine parliamentary hands. Does my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), as a distinguished Chairman of the Procedure Committee, agree that we would have much greater credibility and transparency in the system if, while keeping the benefits of programming, we gave responsibility for determining its form to such a Committee, which would be outstandingly chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton)?

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Mr. Knight: I agree with every aspect of that intervention. I think that a business Committee would be good news. I say to the Leader of the House that that issue is not going to go away. We will have to return to it, for the reasons that have been explained earlier in the debate. Therefore, I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right. I hope that the Leader of the House will be prepared to return to the issue sooner rather than later.

I thank the Leader of the House for providing time today for us to debate a number of wide-ranging but important issues. He has shown thus far that he is willing to look at new ways of improving parliamentary scrutiny, even if that may involve some inconvenience to the Executive. If he continues in that way, he may not win a parliamentary popularity contest with his colleagues, but he will rightly have the gratitude and growing respect of the whole House.

3.28 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): At the outset, may I say that I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that the quality of scrutiny in the House has improved considerably during the past 25 years? I am anxious to see continued improvement—there is scope for further improvement.

I wish to address just two of the motions before us: motion 6 on the communications allowance and motion 7 on September sittings. Starting with the communications allowance, I do not welcome that. On the contrary, I am wholly opposed. I believe that it is a misuse of public money and I intend to vote against it. Some of our discussion earlier this evening has confused two issues. There are legitimate constituency issues, some of which do require quite large-scale mailings. I have no problem with that.

The other issue is the recent growth in thinly disguised party propaganda paid for out of the public purse, which I am wholly against. As I see it, the purpose of the proposed allowance is to legitimise a practice whereby Members increasingly spend public money, which is rightly made available to us to provide a service for our constituents, on what amounts to vanity publishing for the purposes that I described. It consists usually of unsolicited glossy brochures, often in party colours, advertising the good works of the Member concerned, who acts as a sort of fairy godmother to his or her constituents. As I mentioned, I have seen examples that contain 16 or even 20 photographs of the Member concerned. The brochures are often indistinguishable from party political propaganda, except that, if the Members concerned are sensible—and not all of them have been—they take care not to mention their party or to criticise their opponents. They are not only printed but, often, distributed at public expense. We need only consider the huge discrepancies in Members’ spending on postage to recognise that there is a rabbit away somewhere. I read recently that one Member would have to be sending out 680 letters a day to justify his postage bill. It is hard to see how that could be justified.

Some such brochures sail very close to the wind. I sit on the Standards and Privileges Committee, which receives a steady trickle of complaints, often from
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other Members but sometimes from members of the public, alleging abuses of the postage and incidental expenditure allowance. Were I a candidate for Parliament running against an incumbent who was using public funds to publish and distribute what looks to most people like campaign literature, I would be mightily upset. It is only a question of time before the practice is challenged in the courts.

Martin Salter: Does not my hon. Friend accept that the communications allowance, coupled with the impending cap on the hitherto uncapped free postage-paid stationery at our disposal, will mean that a substantial number of the high spenders will have their practices limited? That includes Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Mullin: I certainly agree that it includes Members on both sides of the House. Whether it results in a serious reduction in the practice, however, remains to be seen. My view is that the practice needs to be stopped, not legitimised, and that allowances should be used for legitimate purposes. I can see a case, for example, for permitting the distribution of a card or leaflet advertising the name of the MP and details of how he or she can be contacted, but no more. I shall vote against the proposal, and I encourage anyone who is concerned about the reputation of Parliament to do likewise.

With regard to September sittings, I support them, and am in favour of retaining them. I therefore support the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I am not wedded to any particular days in September, but I just cannot accept, as other Members have said, that it is right for the House to award the Government a three-month holiday from scrutiny. I recognise that all of us have things to do in our constituencies when the House is not sitting, but let us remember that we are only talking about sitting for eight days in September, in the second and third weeks of the month; we are not talking about sitting for the whole of September.

I note that many of those who are not keen on sitting for eight days in September regard themselves as modernisers. I am a moderniser, too, but I am puzzled that so many of those who describe themselves as modernisers are wedded to recesses of almost Gladstonian proportions. I am told that there is little enthusiasm for September sittings. Well, there was once. As recently as 29 October 2002, the House voted, as has already been pointed out, by a margin of 411 to 47 for September sittings. I suspect that many Members have forgotten that they voted for September sittings, and I shall watch with interest as they file sheepishly into the Aye Lobby today in support of the motion that will do away with them.

We are not talking about sitting for longer. As our late friend Robin Cook said when he introduced his reforms, the proposal was part of a deal:

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