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25 Oct 2007 : Column 495

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield unfortunately could not move an amendment in the Committee because he was absent, but his amendment was taken. All that it requested the Government to do was consider not arranging for Government statements to be made on Opposition days. There was another request: could the Government be a little more generous, and not impose the guillotine in such a rigorous way? The great Committee, on its knees, was affronted to think that something like this could be taken away from the Government, and voted it down.

John Bercow: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Shepherd: I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not. I have heard him and I am grateful for his interventions, but I know that the Deputy Leader of the House is anxious to set us right on the wrongness of our ways.

That is what it has always been about. Ten years into the Modernisation Committee, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) said in his interesting and important contribution—there is no question about that—in the end, where do we go? We have been around these circles. The Modernisation Committee has been the instrument of the Executive, who have taken total control over the Standing Orders. The report shows us that. It is total control. It is set out. All Government business takes precedence, save for the few days—the crumbs—that are left to those below the salt. That is what it has achieved. If it did nothing else but that, it would gladden the heart of the most reactionary old “divine right of kings” in the Government. They have a divine right. They were elected. They tell me the Prime Minister was elected.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): He was appointed.

Mr. Shepherd: It was an appointment. My hon. Friend puts his finger on something that has been said both by my own Front Benchers and the Liberal Democrats. They said that we want to strengthen Parliament. It is an absurd proposition. Parliament is supreme. That is an important constitutional doctrine. In theory there is nothing one needs to do to strengthen it. It has all the powers. They are, however, not exercised by the Members of the House of Commons; they are exercised by the Executive. They are the Executive by the appointment of the Crown and they control a majority.

We see this Chamber merely in terms of majoritarianism. That is what it has descended to. I remember Whitelaw wanting to know, meet and head off and genuinely engaging in debate. When Douglas Hurd was a Member of the House, however outrageous my opinions were on freedom of information, he engaged with them. I think of the repressiveness of the Home Office. My goodness, looking back, the Home Office was a bastion of liberality compared with the hurried visitors through the offices of it now—authoritarian is being redefined even as we speak on the Floor of the House. [Interruption.] I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton).

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I am hoping to get in; that is all.

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Mr. Shepherd: I apologise. I thought it was my bounden duty, as if it were a three-line whip, to allow my hon. Friend to intervene.

I do not think that I will oppose any of this. Perhaps I will oppose the motion on the jangling machine in our pockets, as someone said. Even with the 90 minutes, the Government get the first 10 minutes, the Opposition get 10 minutes—up to 10 minutes, I was reminded by the Leader of the House—and the Liberal Democrats get six minutes. Then there may be a little winding-up session. By the time we have carved up the 90 minutes, what is left for the poor suckers, us the Back Benchers? To consider that a sincere, determined effort, as the former Leader of the House said, to strengthen our role!

We come to the present Leader of the House. Her first public act in this House was to suspend Standing Orders, in order that she could impose on the Home Affairs Committee the choice of the Executive as its Chairman. She has been the first contested Chairman of the Modernisation Committee as a consequence of that and rightly so. She has three roles. We talk about a new constitutional settlement. It is a joke. We hear the Secretary of State for Justice peddle those things. At the expense of the taxpayer—perhaps I should not be so derisory but it is at great expense—we produce a report wherein the wisdom lies in the submissions made to the Committee, not in the deliberations of the Committee. That is why the greatest possible opportunity for Back Benchers is snuffed out and passes away.

We could have done something that would have strengthened the role but that wily old Secretary of State for Justice sits there and says, as is said at every meeting, “There is no point at all in suggesting this, Aldridge-Brownhills. The Whips won’t accept it.” We have the absurdity of the Chairman, the Leader of the House of Commons, consorting with the Whips. That is the real world—not a world of aspiration or of ideals, but a world of practicality. The practicality lies in the Committee; it is its way of controlling the House of Commons. We should remember that in what we do.

John Bercow: There is no more impassioned or articulate speaker in the House of Commons than my hon. Friend, but although there are real grounds for dissatisfaction that some of the evidence given to the Committee was not accepted and that not all of the recommendations are quite as thoroughgoing as we would like, it is reasonable at least to consider the proposition that the glass if half-full rather than half-empty. There are good things in this report that the Government are commending and which the House will take forward. I do not think that one wants to take a view that the world has been going progressively downhill since the 11th century and probably for some period before.

Mr. Shepherd: I defer to my hon. Friend’s knowledge of the 11th century. I am dealing with our immediate history; today, yesterday and the day before. That was an absurd intervention and I will now sit down and allow my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield to speak.

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4.41 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): First, I apologise for not being present for a major part of the debate; I have been chairing an important Public Bill Committee.

I am delighted to have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), whose commitment to this House and to democracy is unequalled, as is his courage in advancing his arguments on behalf of Back-Bench Members. I agree with my hon. Friend, supported by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), about the importance of private Members’ motions. They gave authority to Back Benchers—Government or Opposition—to move motions that were embarrassing to the Government.

Programming has not featured greatly today. Programming, or guillotining, is unacceptable. If Members who want to speak on an important Bill are not called on Second Reading or appointed to the Public Bill Committee, the only opportunity that they have to speak is on Report or during remaining stages. Even those stages are now subject to programming, which is fundamentally wrong. A Member must have at least one opportunity during the passage of a Bill to speak to it.

The report recommends that programming be kept under review and that the Government agree. I do not want that; I want a commitment that there will be no programming of remaining stages. We would then become much more democratic and the public would believe more in the House, because Members would be able to speak to—if not have influence over—Bills and could indicate their view or that of their constituents.

I say to the Deputy Leader of the House that there are quite a lot of good things in this report. I comment with some experience and knowledge. I have been on the Modernisation Committee since its establishment in 1997 and I am its longest-serving member, and I have also had the honour of chairing the Procedure Committee for the longest period that one is permitted to do so—in my case, that was eight years. I come to this debate with some experience and commitment. My final years in this House are being committed, and will be committed, to the integrity and sovereignty of this Chamber and the role of the Back Bencher. I want that role strengthened so that the Government are held more to account and people feel closer in touch with the House than they do at the moment.

4.45 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): It is a great privilege to respond to this debate, in which so many hon. Members have spoken with such great passion. I congratulate all those who took part in the Modernisation Committee’s work, both those who gave evidence and Committee members.

I would like to draw Members’ attention to two particularly illuminating pieces of evidence. The first is the memorandum submitted by Professor Philip Cowley from the university of Nottingham. In both his oral and written evidence he touched on the myth of the golden era and the fact that Back Benchers are much more assertive now than they have been at any
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time since the mid-19th century. When describing the rebellions in the past 10 years, he said:

I understand that the rebellion on the Iraq war was the largest since the difficulties that Peel had with the corn laws. We need to avoid engaging in too much myth making. It is clear, as Professor Cowley says, that Back Benchers are themselves strengthening their role. Clearly, the era of sycophancy is dead.

The second piece of evidence was given by one of the Deputy Speakers, Sir Alan Haselhurst. He most interestingly pointed out that the amount of time available to Back Benchers in Westminster Hall is more than 300 hours, which is almost three times what they had under the previous procedures. It is important that we have a realistic picture of what is going on, because that will allow us to make realistic and sensible improvements to our procedures.

I turn to the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). She welcomes the proposed introduction of topical debates and topical questions, as I believe did every hon. Member who spoke, but she is asking the Government to publish on a regular basis—fortnightly—as a written ministerial statement, a record of what representations have been made. I think that what she proposes would be rather inflexible. That is not to say that it will not be necessary to look at how we can be open about what hon. Members have requested, but something as restrictive as a written ministerial statement every fortnight would probably prove impractical.

Mrs. May: I want the Government to make three commitments about topical debates. First, I want them to find a way of making known to hon. Members the subjects that have been proposed. We would thereby be able to see what decisions the Leader of the House took in choosing a subject. Secondly, I want the Government to find a way to enable Back Benchers to nominate subjects, so that topical debates are not discussed and determined only by Opposition and Government Front Benchers. Finally, I want the Government to commit to ensuring that topical debates do not eat into Opposition time.

Helen Goodman: We entirely accept the principle set out by the right hon. Lady; the matter really boils down to the modalities of how the information should be produced. We are completely open to Back Benchers nominating subjects, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House pointed out that they could do so at business questions. If we have topical debates, the whole timetable will inevitably have to be looked at. At the moment, I am not in a position to say that all the time allocated to topical debates will come out of Government time.

Mr. Cash: Will the Deputy Leader of the House give way?

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Helen Goodman: No, I am sorry. The hon. Gentleman has not been in the debate—

Mr. Cash: I was not able to be here!

Helen Goodman: Many other hon. Members have spoken and I want to respond to them.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead said that she wanted topical debates to go beyond departmental silos. That is a very sensible proposition, and the matter will partly be in the hands of those who suggest the debates as well as those of the Leader of the House.

Mrs. May: I am grateful for the Deputy Leader’s generosity in giving way, but I want to pick up on her saying that she cannot guarantee that topical debates will not be taken out of Opposition time. The point of such debates is that they give Members of the House greater freedom and increase the opportunity for debates that are not led by the Government. If they merely replace Opposition day debates and the time set aside for them, the House will be no better off.

Helen Goodman: I did not say that topical debates should replace Opposition time. I said that we will have to look at how the whole week is reshaped and that I could not guarantee that there would be no slicing of any Opposition time.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead asked us to review the use of Westminster Hall, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House said that she would do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) spoke about the work of the European Scrutiny Committee. I attended a sitting very briefly yesterday, and it is clear that it does its important work extremely well. However, it is also clear that the processes are inadequate, which is why the Government are committed to looking at them again. It is also why we accept the timetable offered by my hon. Friend and other members of the Committee.

Many hon. Members spoke about the importance of induction, and we can all agree that that needs to be improved. Obviously, induction is not primarily a matter for the Government, but I understand that the Board of Management and the parties are already discussing how it can be improved. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) intervened on that point to say that we should increase the gap between the election and the return of Parliament. In our written response, we say that we are prepared to consider favourably a probable doubling of the amount of time that has elapsed between the election and Parliament’s return in recent years.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) spoke about the role of Select Committees and the importance of debates on Select Committee reports, as did the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). We do not believe that there could be sensible or coherent debates on reports before the Government had had an opportunity to respond, but we have agreed to look into a more measured timetable for considering them.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire suggested that such debates should be on substantive motions. However, votes in Select Committees might have the opposite effect to the one the right hon.
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Gentleman wants. If Members knew that they would have to take part in whipped votes, it could destroy the bipartisan approach that most Members take in Select Committees and which produces such high quality scrutiny.

John Bercow: Will the Deputy Leader of the House allow?

Helen Goodman: I am sorry, but I do not have time to take interventions if I am to respond to the points raised by Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) welcomed topical debates and gave us a good analysis of the accountability gap at regional level. With the Modernisation Committee, we are looking into regional accountability and the forms that can be used to deal with it.

The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) made a passionate speech about multi-tasking and electronic devices and spoke to us as I often do to my children when I think they are not listening properly. On the emotional level, I am entirely sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman, but the Modernisation Committee, for all its weaknesses, is an all-party body and recommended those small changes. The Government have accepted the recommendations but it is for the Speaker and the House authorities to look at the practicalities, which will in part address the issue of disturbance to Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), who is a member of the Modernisation Committee, spoke about multi-tasking, regional Select Committees and the benefits of topical debates.

The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who is the Chair of the Procedure Committee, gave a sensible speech and his Committee produced a sensible and helpful report. We agree with most of its recommendations. From time to time, the use of petitions needs to be reviewed and, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, in the 1270s Edward I had a special initiative to increase petitions because then, as now, the Government had a rosy picture of their performance and needed to be reminded of how things are perceived.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills and for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) all spoke on important matters of principle—very sincere they were, too. The hon. Member for Macclesfield spoke about programming. I would like him to look at paragraph 122 of the report, where the evidence shows that programming has not had the dire effects that he described.

I would like to conclude by commending the motions to the House.

It being Five o’clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [22 October].

Amendment proposed: Amendment (a) to motion 1, at end add

25 Oct 2007 : Column 501

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 36, Noes 74.
Division No. 220]
[5 pm


Amess, Mr. David
Anderson, Janet
Binley, Mr. Brian
Bone, Mr. Peter
Bottomley, Peter
Cash, Mr. William
Cormack, Sir Patrick
Davies, Philip
Dowd, Jim
Dunwoody, Mrs. Gwyneth
Field, Mr. Mark
Greening, Justine
Hayes, Mr. John
Heath, Mr. David
Heathcoat-Amory, rh Mr. David
Hoey, Kate
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Hopkins, Kelvin
Horam, Mr. John
Howarth, Mr. Gerald
Hughes, Simon
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Keetch, Mr. Paul
Malins, Mr. Humfrey
Murrison, Dr. Andrew
Prescott, rh Mr. John
Russell, Bob
Sanders, Mr. Adrian
Shepherd, Mr. Richard
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Spicer, Sir Michael
Steen, Mr. Anthony
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Wilshire, Mr. David
Winterton, Sir Nicholas
Tellers for the Ayes:

Ann Winterton and
Miss Ann Widdecombe

Armstrong, rh Hilary
Baird, Vera
Baldry, Tony
Bercow, John
Blizzard, Mr. Bob
Bryant, Chris
Burrowes, Mr. David
Byers, rh Mr. Stephen
Caton, Mr. Martin
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Cohen, Harry
Connarty, Michael
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
David, Mr. Wayne
Davies, Mr. Dai
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Drew, Mr. David
Eagle, Angela
Eagle, Maria
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias
Gibson, Dr. Ian
Goodman, Helen
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Hall, Patrick
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Hillier, Meg
Hoon, rh Mr. Geoffrey
Horwood, Martin
Howarth, David
Keeble, Ms Sally
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
Knight, rh Mr. Greg
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Levitt, Tom
Lidington, Mr. David
Lilley, rh Mr. Peter
Linton, Martin
Lloyd, Tony
Love, Mr. Andrew
Luff, Peter
MacShane, rh Mr. Denis
Maples, Mr. John
May, rh Mrs. Theresa
McCabe, Steve
McCarthy, Kerry
Merron, Gillian
Miller, Andrew
Moffatt, Laura
Munn, Meg
O'Hara, Mr. Edward
Olner, Mr. Bill
Ottaway, Richard
Penning, Mike
Pound, Stephen
Redwood, rh Mr. John
Rosindell, Andrew
Ruddock, Joan
Salter, Martin
Selous, Andrew
Shaw, Jonathan
Sheerman, Mr. Barry
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Swinson, Jo
Taylor, Matthew
Twigg, Derek
Vaizey, Mr. Edward
Watson, Mr. Tom
Watts, Mr. Dave
Whittingdale, Mr. John
Wiggin, Bill
Willott, Jenny
Yeo, Mr. Tim
Young, rh Sir George
Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Kevan Jones and
Sir Peter Soulsby
Question accordingly negatived.
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