Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD):
On that point, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not limit the time available to the Leader of the House to the extent that she cannot answer one simple question on the south-west. How can it possibly be right to pack
a regional Select Committee for the south-west with Members of Parliament from outside the region, and for counties within the south-west not to be represented at all because of the arithmetic?
Sir Patrick Cormack: The House ought to be discussing that at great length, because it amounts to imposing a Government majority in every part of the kingdom, even those parts that do not have or want such a majority.
One point that we need to have in mind is that there is a motion relating to the change of Standing Orders. To apply an allocation of time motion to a motion relating to general questions is one thing; but to apply it to the Standing Orders of this House is taking the situation way beyond what is acceptable, for all the reasons given by my hon. Friend, but for many more that we will pursue for some time this afternoon.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman also reflect on the dilemma that many Back Benchers will experience? Given that 13 Members will be seeking to catch Mr. Speakers eye during the one-and-a-half-hour debate, there are two ways in which Back Benchers will be able to probe the issue: first, they might be called to speak, which is perhaps a forlorn hope; and, secondly, by extending the Leader of the Houses speech by intervening to probe her arguments. That is clearly a dilemma, because by doing the latter, one might reduce the amount of time available to speak later in the debate.
Sir Patrick Cormack: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I referred to the need to intervene on speeches from the Front Bench, including his own. It is important that those who espouse policies defend them properly. They cannot do so if they merely get up, read speeches and sit down. Of course, intervention is an essential part of debate.
It would be an improvement if Front-Bench speeches were excluded and if an hour and a half allocated to Back-Bench Members. I am in such a generous mood today that I will make another offer to the Leader of the House. If Mr. Speaker would accept a manuscript amendment to that effect, would she be willing to accept it? In other words, I should like her speech, that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), which I am sure will be brilliant, and that of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondseyhis might be a shade long, but I am sure it will be very goodto be exempted, so that the rest of us can have an hour and a half. If you were willing, Mr. Speaker, would the Leader of the House accept such an amendment? Ms Harman indicated dissent.
Mr. Harper: In his intervention on my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) hit on another problem with the timetable motion on regional Select Committees and their composition. Of course, the political composition of each region is different. Really, we need to have a separate debate about the composition of each of the regional Select Committees, to see whether there are particular issues in regions such as the south-west, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. In one and a half hours, the House simply is not going to get that opportunity.
Sir Patrick Cormack: That is right. Another issue that has to be debated within the one and a half hours is what happens to Members who already serve on a Select Committee, because there will have to be a degree of duplication. I have the honour of chairing the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairsa task that I greatly enjoyand I have three exceptionally good Government members of that committee from the north-east. I can well imagine the dilemma that they would face. We ought to have time to debate that dilemma, but we will hardly have time to do so because in the five minutes allocated to each speakerproperly under the circumstancesit will be difficult effectively to make more than one or two points. Apart from the remarks of the Deputy Leader of the House who, as always, introduced the motion with good humour, no one has even begun to agree that this is a proper allocation of time.
I will resist the temptation to speak for another five hours. I am almost inclined to give in to itthat, at least, would put me in the Guinness Book of Records, which nothing else I have done in this place has so far.
Mr. Cash: On that point, my hon. Friend is tempting fate. There are some who could keep the debate going not just for five hours, but for much longer. Indeed, Gladstone spoke for six and a half hours on a Budget debate.
Sir Patrick Cormack: Well, he did have something of substance to talk about! I would not want to enter the verbosity stakes with my hon. and illustrious Friend. Perhaps we could do a charity competition on it one day, but that could hardly be in this House, because it would be for money, albeit for charity [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, no less, wishes to intervene.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he not think that the House needs to hear more from the Deputy Leader of the House, who said a few moments ago that he was sure that, if an amendment had been tabled, the Government would have listened, showing that he was not necessarily wedded to this timetable motion. Should we not hear from him and then invite the Government to table a manuscript amendment to their own motion?
Sir Patrick Cormack:
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend who, as Chair of the Procedure Committee, has a great background of knowledge in these matters. I have twice already made an offer about a manuscript amendment, but answer came there none. It is very sad indeed that the Deputy Leader of the House, having said effectively that an amendment would be accepted, has spurned by disdainful silence the two offers that
have been made. Perhaps the Leader of the House would like to intervene to explain to me and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) what she would accept by way of amendment to this timetable motion. It is that motion that is making us very cross.
Mr. Speaker is scrupulously right to ensure that we talk about the timing, which I am trying to do, but it is ludicrous that we have until 7 oclock to debate timing issues and only one and a half hours to debate the substance. That is a perversion of parliamentary practice.
Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend has already made a general offer to the Government Front Benchers, but he may like to be a little more specific. I was asked how long I thought was needed. If my hon. Friend were to suggest three hours for the first group of motions, three hours for the second and two hours for the third, the Government might well find that they had the Houses support. Would my hon. Friend consider putting that offer to the Government Front Benchers?
Sir Patrick Cormack: Perhaps on the basis of third time lucky, I would be willing to do so. My first suggestion was spurned; my second suggestion, to exempt the three Front-Bench speeches from the hour and a half, was spurned; I now fall back upon what I shall call the Lincolnshire amendment. As a native son of Lincolnshire, I am delighted to do that, and I very much hope that the amendment will be acceptedif only out of a sense of affection for my native county and my right hon. and learned Friends adopted county. I thus propose three hours for the first set of motions, three for the second and two for the third. Yet again I give the Leader of the House or the Deputy Leader of the House the opportunity to confirm that they would accept such a manuscript amendment. I wait with bated breath for intervention from the Rhondda or from Peckham.
Mr. Harper: The Government do not seem to want to accept my hon. Friends offer, but his proposed time allocation has highlighted another problem, showing that it would be much better if we ran with the mood of the House. The third part of the motion deals with setting up a Speakers Conferencesubject matter that could have the most dramatic effect on the electoral system and the composition of the House, and from which there could be some important proposals. I do not think that we should be relegating such an important issue to third place in the allocation of timing, as the House might want to spend a great deal of time thrashing out the terms of reference that it wants to give Mr. Speaker. That might well need more than two hours, so we should see how long the House wants to take.
Sir Patrick Cormack:
I agree, of course, in principle with my hon. Friend. A number of hon. Members were in the House when timetabling did not exist unless a guillotine was brought in on a specific Bill and voted on by the Housea much fairer and better way of doing things. Now, before we embark on any discussion, we are told how long we have; and when a Bill goes into Committee, we are told when it will come out of Committee. My hon. Friend, as a good parliamentarian, is right: we should have an open-ended debate on these issues. The Chair always has the opportunity to accept a closure
motionsomething that has been in the possession of the Speaker or the occupant of the Chair since time immemorial. That is fine and as it should be if, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham says, we tend to borealthough I hope I am not doing so at the moment.
Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman is making what I consider to be a wonderful speech. May I take him back to the Lincolnshire amendment suggesting three hours, three hours and two hours? If that were accepted and we commenced the first set of provisions on Regional Select Committees at 2 oclock, which is not beyond the realms of possibility, we could then conclude the business at 10 oclock tonight, which does not seem an extraordinary length of time to consider three such important motions. Will the hon. Gentleman please put that suggestion again to the Leader of the House?
Sir Patrick Cormack: I am ready for an intervention by the Leader of the House at any moment. If she or her deputy would accept such a motion, debate would end, as the hon. Gentleman so rightly points out, at approximately 10 oclock. That cannot be too late for anyone.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It seems to me that denunciation of the idea that councillors should be able to be co-opted could itself absorb a significant number of hours, because we will be creating, in my view, a wholly undesirable precedent. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would have been perfectly possible to deal with the regional accountability issues in a discrete and dedicated fashion on a day that is being used for a general debate which has simply been shoe-horned in to ensure that an otherwise incomplete day can somehow be made complete?
Sir Patrick Cormack: As always, my hon. Friend speaksat least on parliamentary mattersa very great deal of sense, and I entirely agree with him. I cannot talk about it right now, but the concept of hybridity, which is to be transferred from Bills to Committees, is a parliamentary innovation of revolutionary proportions. That alone deserves a full days debate.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that, under the present business motion, the House could sit for long after 10 oclock? This debate can go on until 7 oclock; we then have an hour and a half on the next item, on which there could be seven Divisions, exempted from the time allotted; and then we go on to other matters. In that case, is not 10 oclock actually earlier than the time allotted for debate under the Governments own proposition?
Sir Patrick Cormack: It is indeed. With the exemplary skill in these matters of which my right hon. Friend stands possessed, he has drawn attention to a logic of the position that has escaped those who do not understand logic.
My hon. Friend has spoken of the importance of parliamentary rules and the constitutional position which is being invaded by this disgraceful episode. Is he aware that in, I believe, 1886, during the enormous battles between the Irish Members and the rest of the
House, the Speakerand I say this with great respect to the present incumbent of the Chaircapitulated to an understanding arrived at between the two Front Benches that the Standing Orders, otherwise known at that time as the Speakers Rules, should be taken away from Mr. Speaker and conferred on the Executive? A former Clerk of the House rightly said that that was the moment at which democracy in the House came under the most severe threat, and that he did not think it would return until we dealt with the problem of the Executives having control over the Standing Orders.
Sir Patrick Cormack: I do not think it was Parnell in this case. I believe that my hon. Friend was referring indirectly to Speaker Gullyor would it be Speaker Brand? I think it was Brand. Anyway, one of them certainly granted a concession from which successive generations of Members of this House have undoubtedly suffered, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), with his grasp of the history of the last century but onealthough he was not here at the time; it was his ancestor Bright who washas done us a great service by referring to that.
Mr. Curry: Is not one of the reasons why the time allowed is so inadequate that so much in this proposition is still unknown and unexplored? For instance, one of the motions refers to specified elected councillors. Has my hon. Friend added up all the councillors in Yorkshire and the Humber, or in the south-east region, and wondered by what process they are to be boiled down to an acceptable number if we are not to see municipal mayhem across the land?
Sir Patrick Cormack: I know roughly how many councillors there are in Staffordshire, and I know that Staffordshire is only one part of what is called the west midlands, and I know what a terrible job it will be deciding who should represent whom from those bodies; so of course my right hon. Friend is right.
I have spoken of the need for self-denial on the part of the Leader of the House in her speech because of this ridiculous one-and-a-half-hour limit, but it really is her duty to explain to the House why all these suggestions and proposals are being made, and in doing so, she ought to be open to probing questions in intervention after intervention. I can well imagine that she herself will be on her feet for an hour and a half, and indeed it may be necessary for us to ensure that she is.
Mr. Cash: The Leader of the House is not doing it; the Deputy Leader of the House is doing it. As my hon. Friend rightly points out, however, the Leader of the House has a responsibility to get to her feet and do it.
Mr. Heath: While the hon. Gentleman is illuminating the duties of the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House, I wonder whether he is as perplexed as I am by the fact that they both have responsibilities to the House as a whole. This is not Government business; it is business of the House. Is it not odd, therefore, that the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader are not listening to the voices of Members in all parts of the Chamber and trying to accommodate the wishes of the House, clearly expressed, by accepting one, or any, of the hon. Gentlemans proposals?
Sir Patrick Cormack: For some years, the hon. Gentleman occupied with great distinction the position now held by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, who has just popped out to do something or other. He has underlined the unique roleI use the word unique properlyof the Leader of the House. The Leader of the House is, of course, a member of the Executive, and is, of course, a leading member of the Government of the day. However, the Leader of the House also has a responsibility that transcends those party political duties.
During my time in the House, we have had a number of very distinguished Leaders of the House who have exemplified that. I think of the late John Biffen, who, in my 38 years here, was perhaps the Leader of the House par excellence; but I also think of the late John Silkin, who was a man of great probity, a learned man, and a man who, when he was Leader of the House, considered it his duty to stand up to his fellow members of the Executive to defend the rights of the House. That is something thatwith great respectthe right hon. and learned Lady, the present Leader of the House, has singularly failed to do.
I do not know, of course, who insisted on the one and a half hours, but it may be that the Leader of the House was told that that was all she could have. I doubt it, because she is supposed to be in charge of the timetable, but if she was leant on, that was disgraceful, and if she did the leaning, that was even more disgraceful.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: Does my hon. Friend agree that it was wrong for the Leader of the House to impose a time limit of one and a half hours on some of the motions when she must have known that they were extremely controversial and would be strongly opposed by at least two parties in the House, and to use her casting vote in the Modernisation Committee to get the necessary resolutions through? She should have allowed more time, because she must have appreciated the controversial nature of the motions.