Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con):
I rise to support what the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has just said. Like him, I think that this is an abuse. I think, too, that many hon. and right hon. Members are
prepared to sit late tonight on a matter of this importance. After all, those of us who have been Members of the House some little time always used to be here until 10 oclock, without particular inconvenience. It may be that people now make different arrangements or want to get to their constituencies early on a Wednesday or have pressing engagements at freebie dinners, but that is not a first priority for hon. and right hon. Members.
I want to make a few general points. First, there is a general principle that in a democratic body, Members who wish to express a view on matters of importance should be able to do so. Of course it is true that that is often a bore. Many of us are boring [Interruption.] That is good of my hon. Friends, but it is also true that some of us are boring at least some of the time. However, one burden of being a Member of the House is to put up with bores.
I was on the Front Bench as a Government Whip for quite a long time. By God, it was boring, but I at least recognised that part of the process of a democratic House is to listen to views. The point has already been made that quite significant issues are being discussed in the first group of motionsI think that all the issues are significant. If one reflects just for a moment on how many right hon. and hon. Members will intervene, one sees how inadequate the time will be. There will be Front-Bench spokesmen for the two leading parties and a Front-Bench spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. Then somebody from the Modernisation Committee will be called, after which one or two illustrious parliamentarians will doubtless be called to speak. When the House has exhausted that lot, there will be very little for the rest of us, unless of course we fall into the category of illustrious parliamentarian.
Even with a limit of five minutes, which you have imposed, Mr. Speaker, very few Back Benchers will get into the debate, but if one looks at the kind of issue that will be raised in relation to the first grouping, one sees how important they are. Right hon. and hon. Members will be demanding an answer to the question, Is there a need for these regional Select Committees? Can the House staff them in terms of parliamentarians and House of Commons staff? Can the House justify the cost of £2 million or so, which is quite considerable? Will this proposal extend the powers of patronage available to those on the Front Benches? That is an important issue, because some Members will pay quite a lot in terms of their independence to sit on these regional Select Committees, and I am not sure that I want to give the Government, or even my own Front Benchers, a power of patronage.
Incidentally, if the Chairman is to be paid, that will be another significant bit of patronage available to those on the Front Bench. I ask myself, Are those not questions that need to be ventilated by as many people as want to speak?
I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman has seen them, but there have been two articles in the press in the last week suggesting that the new, or reinstated, Government Chief Whip would not allow Labour Members to become members of a Select Committee if they have ever voted against the Government. Therefore, the only people who would
go on the Select Committee would be people [Interruption.] I am not sure that there will be enough to serve all the Committees. It seems to me that that is absolutely a further abuse of the system, which we ought to discuss.
Mr. Speaker: Order. We should remember that we should be talking about how much time has been allocated to this matter, or the lack of time. We should certainly not be discussing the merits of the argument. That comes at a later stage.
Mr. Hogg: Of course I understand that, Mr. Speaker. All I was seeking to do by identifying some of the issues was to make the point that lots of right hon. and hon. Members will want to intervene on an issue of this kind. That is particularly true in relation to the European Scrutiny Committee, because whether the Committee sits in private or in public is a matter of real concern, and I am sure that lots of right hon. and hon. Members will want to intervene on it. The time limits in the business motion are simply inadequate.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the whole reputation of the House suffers if important Select Committees, when taking evidence from distinguished witnesses, are unable to achieve a quorum? That has happened on many occasions. If we are to establish another eight Select Committees, it will be even more difficult for Select Committees of the House to achieve a quorum. Talking about the House as a whole, the House itself will suffer because fewer and fewer Members will be able to attend debates. Maybe that is what the Government want.
Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friends point is important. It is discourteous to witnesses if the Committee is not quorate. I have no doubt, too, that if we set up more and more Select Committees, or regional Select Committees, we will take away from the Chamber, which is undesirable. He and I have been in this place for a very long time, and we happen to believe that this Chamber is the main forum of debate, rather than elsewhere, although I acknowledge that elsewhere can be important.
Chris Bryant: The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that I respect him in many regards. He also knows, as a former Whip, that as the motion has been on the table for a week, he or any other Member, including the two Front Benchers who have already spoken, could well have tabled an amendment to increase the time available for debate. I am sure that we would have listened to what they had to say.
Mr. Hogg: I have participated in many debates on timetable motions, and I have tabled amendments on occasion. I think that I can say without any fear of contradiction that I do not recall this Government, on any occasion when I have participated, extending the time available in a business motion. They have never shown any willingness to respond to Back Benchers concerns.
I apologise, but I cannot recall whether my right hon. and learned Friend was at business questions last Thursday, but I point out to him and to the Deputy
Leader of the House that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) raised exactly that point about there not being enough time for proper debate on the motions. It was therefore entirely open to the Leader of the House to take the view of the House from business questions and change the motion.
Mr. Hogg: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, because I was here when my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made that point. I also remember that when he made it, there was a lot of chuntering of agreement from those on the Back Benches, which should have indicated to those on the Government Front Bench that there was a lot of support for what he was saying.
Mr. Harper: The response from the Deputy Leader of the House missed the point: it is not that we want an amended business motion; we do not want a business motion at all. We want to be able to take the business until the House has finished dealing with it. The point is that this is an occasion on which the Government could have left well alone and not had a business motion at all.
Mr. Hogg: I think it is just possible that the House would rise anyway at 7 oclock if we did not have a business motion. Probably, there is a requirement for a business motion, but it should not be time limited in this way. Speaking personally, I would hope that the House is willing to sit to at least 10 oclock to deal with this business.
Mr. Bone: Before my right hon. and learned Friend concludes his opening remarks, will he indicate for the benefit of those such as myself how long, from his experience, this debate and each part of the individual motions might take, in order to help the House make a decision on this business of the House motion?
Mr. Hogg: Obviously I do not know how many hon. Members have sought leave to speak, but I would have thought it fair to allow three hours for the first group of amendments, with two or three hours thereafter. However, I do not know how many hon. Members wish to participate, so I cannot give my hon. Friend a sensible answer.
These are not preliminary remarks; they are concluding remarks. I therefore conclude by saying that in a democratic House we must provide ample time for those who want to participate. True, some contributions will be repetitive, some will be otiose and some will be boring, but at the end of the day, that is the nature of a democratic House and that is what we should allow right hon. and hon. Members.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I am delighted to follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and agree with everything that he and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said. It is not very often that I can say that about the hon. Gentleman, but I do so willingly and gladly today.
There always has been and always will be tension between the Government and the Opposition in the House when the Executive are drawn from the legislature. When my right hon. and learned Friend sat on the Government Benches, he took a rather different view of such matters. When he was briefly and ingloriously a Whip, he was vociferous in expressing his view and expected the troops to fall into line. I think that I shall be allowed to breach this confidence after so many years, but I shall never forget the lecture that he gave to the 1922 committee on how we should behave ourselves and support the Government. I therefore obviously understand the Governments desire to push their business. However, this Government have gone more than a step too far and they are going many steps too far today. Everything that my right hon. and learned Friend said in that context was entirely right.
I am temptedI think that I could do itto take advantage of this motion and speak until 7 oclock. That would test your patience, Mr. Speaker, as well as that of my colleagues, and I would have to try hard to ensure that I was in order on every particular.
Sir Patrick Cormack: I have had no coffeeindeed, I have not even had any lunchand certainly nothing stronger. Speaking until 7 oclock is a temptation, but one that I shall with some reluctance resist. However, it is important that we make our points forcefully.
The Government have abused their position with regard to Parliament in many ways. I have said this many times, but it is an absolute scandal that the Modernisation Committee, once created, should have become the creature of the Government, by having the Leader of the House imposed as its Chairman. That is not the way that we have decided parliamentary matters in the past. If the next Conservative Government, whom I believe will be elected at the next general election, have the lack of wisdom to keep the Modernisation CommitteeI hope that they will abolish itthey should certainly not allow the Leader of the House to chair it.
The matter is brought into sharp focus today because the most controversial of the substantive motions, for which such inadequate time has been allocated today, were passed on the Leader of the Houses casting vote. We then witnessed the ludicrous spectacle of the Leader of the House giving the Governments response to the report and saying that she agreed with herself. That was of course a wonderful revelation for many of us.
To allow only an hour and a half for the regional debate is utterly wrong. In your wisdom, Mr. Speaker, you have rightly decided that speeches in that debate should be limited to five minutes, because you want as many hon. Members as possible to get in. Given that restraint, I hope that all three Front-Bench spokespersons will exercise self-restraint. I hope that we will not hear a lengthy speech from the Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the Housemuch as I should enjoy listening to such a speech in other contextsor the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey. It is important that Back Benchers from all parts of the country should have an opportunity to express their views.
I must try not to stray and deploy arguments that I will deploy later if I have the good fortune to get five minutes. However, there are questions of manpower and staffing to be answered. There is the question of why we need Select Committees if we are also to have, in my view perfectly properly, regional Grand Committees meeting, one hopes, in the regions to which they relate and on which all the hon. Members from that region will have the right to sit. I completely agree with that, but we should be able to debate the proposal at length. We should also be able to debate whether Chairmen should be paid and whether they should all sit on the Liaison Committee, which would thereby destroy it, by making it the most unwieldy Committee that the House will ever have seen.
It is an insult to the intelligence of hon. Members and the House to say that all those issues should be debated in one and a half hours. Then we come to the other subjects that are to be discussed later. Although there might be a degree of urgency about some of them, there is not the same urgency about all of them. For instance, important as the suggestion is that you, Mr. Speaker, should chair a Speakers Conference, we do not need to debate it until after Christmas. It could well be left to one side.
Today should have been devoted to the regional issues and without time constraints, so that we could go on until 10 oclock. That would have meant that everyone who had a view would have had the opportunity to express it. I suspect that even then, Mr. Speaker, you would have had to limit speeches to perhaps 12 or 15 minutes. I always remember the words of a vicar friend who told me, If you havent struck oil after eight minutes, stop boring. That would be fair enough and would have given hon. Members from all parts of the country the opportunity to take part in the debate.
What is before us is not a programme motion; it is a steamroller motion designed to push through the Governments policy, not the Houses wishes, and it is frankly appalling. In many ways, I wish that some of us had organised something of a conspiracy to ensure that we debated the issue until 7 oclock, although it might not be too late.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman patiently and have some sympathy for what he is saying. However, what has happened demonstrates not only the weakness of the Government, but the poverty of the Opposition. The Opposition have been asleep when they should have been kicking up [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but let me demonstrate my point. Most hon. Members I have spoken, to, Conservative and Labour, have said that they did not know that todays motions contain a provision for councillors to be co-opted on to regional Select Committees. It is the Opposition who should be providing the opposition, not me. They should have drawn attention to the issue much earlier.
Sir Patrick Cormack:
But when the hon. Gentleman so regularly and felicitously provides the opposition, we are delighted to have him on side. He is extremely
perspicacious and sound on most House of Commons matters. Indeed, I am delighted that he has referred to participation by local councillors, which completely changes the complexion of Select Committees, as well as the very identity of Parliament.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue of councillors is an example of how half-baked the Governments proposal is? The councillors are to be co-optedthe motion does not say by what mechanismbut they will not count towards the quorum and will be unable to vote. We will have token councillorshusks of councillorsand for that the House of Commons is giving up control of its own Committees.
Sir Patrick Cormack: It is as if one had said that people in the Public Gallery could take part in debates in the House, or that anyone who was in a Public Bill Committee could chip in. It is ridiculous. It shows the Governments lack of appreciation of the place of Parliament and a cavalier disregard for what we are about in this place, and it is entirely at one with the cosmetic policies of the Leader of the House. She has never done anything other than pay lip service to her regard for Parliament since she occupied that position.
I can see that you are getting restless, Mr. Speaker, because I should be talking about the timing. It is wrong to have only an hour and a half when there are, as the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) have so brilliantly illustrated, issues of such substance and revolutionary changes to discuss.
Mr. Bone: As a very junior Back-Bench Member, one of the problems I have is that, when this sort of timetabling occurs, I am not able to speak on the subject. That is a matter of fact. The only way in which I am ever going to be able to speak on the subject is if the debate is extended to 7 oclock, so that the motion lapses.
Sir Patrick Cormack:
I believe Mr. Speaker, that you made the point that speeches will be limited to five minutes. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will get one of those slots, as I hope I do. That is a matter for you, Mr. Speaker. However, I take my hon. Friends point, because it again illustrates that if there is a one-and-a-half-hour limit, we are dependent on speeches by Front-Bench Members being fairly restrained. We all knowyou better than anyone, Mr. Speakerthat speeches from the Front Bench tend to be subject to interventions. That is perfectly reasonable. I would like the Leader of the House to limit her remarks to five minutes, but it is perfectly possible that she will provoke me or one of my hon. Friendsor many of themto intervene. Before we know where we are, the Leader of the House will have spoken for 20 minutes. The shadow Leader of the House might be in the same position, having been intervened upon from the Labour Benches. That is perfectly legitimate, because it is right that those who have responsibility should be held to account at the Dispatch Box and that those who seek to challenge that responsibility from the Opposition Dispatch Box should also be able to defend their position. The same goes for the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. He is not the shadow Leader of the Housethere is only onebut
he is their spokesman on parliamentary matters, and it is important that he should be able to deploy, and answer for, his arguments.
I would hope that, even at this stage, the Leader of House will give an indication, so that I can shut up and sit down, that she will withdraw the motion immediately. Why does she not do so? She would become the heroine of the House. We would all cheer her to the echo, and debate the matter. She has a once-in-a-lifetime chance for universal popularity on the Floor of the House of Commons
Richard Ottaway: My hon. Friend is of course drawing attention to the importance of Select Committees and Grand Committees in scrutinising legislation. However, has he considered the fact that London is not mentioned in the proposals? We could have a situation in which Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have Select Committeesmy hon. Friend chairs the Northern Ireland Committee with distinction
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): Given that the people of the north-east of the country have already kicked the issue of regions into touch and that we will debate a much more substantive proposal today, does the hon. Gentleman agree that allowing one and a half hours for that debate is an insult to any concept of democracy?
Sir Patrick Cormack: Of course it is. I hoped that I had started to make that point, but I am happy to echo those sentiments. It is an insult, and we must realise that we must also debate the manning of the proposed Committees. In some regions of the country, a party is represented very inadequately or hardly at all, yet it will have to have a majority.