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Main Question, as amended, agreed to.

Ordered, ,

(1) There shall be general committees, called Regional Grand Committees, for each of the following English regions:

(a) East Midlands

(b) East of England

(c) North East

(d) North West

(e) South East

(f) South West

(g) West Midlands

(h) Yorkshire and the Humber

(2) A motion may be made by a Minister of the Crown providing for—

(a) a Regional Grand Committee to sit on a specified day at a specified place in the region to which it relates or at Westminster;

(b) the time and duration of such a sitting; and

(c) the business as provided in paragraph (4) to be conducted at it.

(3) The question on a motion under paragraph (2) shall be put forthwith and may be decided after the moment of interruption.

(4) The business of the committees may include—

(a) questions tabled in accordance with Standing Order (Regional Grand Committees (questions for oral answer));

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(b) statements by a Minister of the Crown, in accordance with paragraph (5) below;

(c) general debates on specified matters.

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European Scrutiny (Standing Orders)

5.38 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): I beg to move,

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to consider the following: amendment (a), line 4, at end add

Motion 9— Modernisation of the House of Commons (Changes to Standing Orders)—

(1) In Standing Order No. 24A (Topical debates)—

(d) in line 19, leave out ‘six’ and insert ‘ten’; and

(e) in line 24, leave out from ‘to’ to the end of line 26 and insert ‘a maximum of five interventions.’.

(2) In Standing Order No. 24B (Amendments to motions to consider specified matters)—

(a) in line 1, after ‘Speaker’, insert ‘or the Chairman’; and

(b) in line 2, after ‘House’, insert ‘or, as the case may be, the committee’.

And the following amendment thereto: (a), leave out lines 9 to 12.

Chris Bryant: I will refer first to motion 9, on issues relating to the modernisation of the House of Commons. Broadly speaking, it rolls forward measures that have already been in place for some time. First, we are making sure that the topical debates that we have held for the past year can continue for the foreseeable future. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House held a review of the operation of topical debates earlier this year. I think that many hon. Members have enjoyed the opportunity to have a more topical debate on a Thursday afternoon on one of the issues of the week. My right hon. and learned Friend now publishes monthly a list of all requests for topical debates, and that is a good principle.

We are introducing some changes this year. We have always held one-and-a-half hour topical debates on a Thursday, although we have said that we will look into whether it is possible to hold them on other days. Several hon. Members have become worried that Front Benchers monopolise the debates and that Back Benchers are not allowed enough time to take part. If the motion is carried, there will be less time available to the main—
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Government and official Opposition—Front Benchers, but the amount of time available to the Liberal Democrats spokesmen will increase slightly from six to 10 minutes. The irony is that, currently, the six minutes allowed for the Liberal Democrat spokesperson is often a shorter period than that allowed in the rest of the debate for Liberal Democrat Back Benchers. We might want to hear a little less from some Liberal Democrat Front Benchers—I am not looking at anyone in particular—but, none the less, we are moving the proposal that there should be equality between the three Front Benches.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Will the Deputy Leader of the House take this opportunity to outline his thinking about the position of spokespeople from the political parties of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales?

Chris Bryant: No, I do not think that I should like to take this opportunity to do that. I note that the hon. Gentleman has not tabled an amendment to the motion, and he could have done, because it has been on the Order Paper for a full week now. However, I want to ensure that all Members have an opportunity to take part equally, so if he has proposals he should feel free to come and talk to me about them.

We are taking forward another measure that has been in operation over the past year: emergency debates. We have changed Standing Order No. 24, and the new system will allow for greater flexibility so that Mr. Speaker can determine not only the date of the debate—formerly, it could be taken only on the next day, immediately—but its length. Previously, such debates could go on for only three hours, but if the motion is approved Mr. Speaker will be able to determine that it continue for longer.

Hon. Members will know that one of the other innovations over the past year has been topical questions. Members have pretty much universally welcomed the fact that, during every Question Time, matters that are entirely topical can be raised, because the questions are effectively open. That has added a much greater sense of topicality and interest. Sometimes I wonder whether the Opposition parties have decided always to use the topical session merely as a means to try to trip up the Government, but it is clear that the whole House supports such opportunities, and as their continuing does not depend on any Standing Order change, it is not mentioned in the motion.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Deputy Leader of the House refers to topical questions that are a part of the daily round of departmental questions to Ministers, but from watching the situation closely from the Back Benches, I must say that there is some evidence of Members who had questions on the Order Paper that were not reached using the topical sessions as a top-up, even though what they have asked has not been especially topical. How in my hon. Friend’s view will Mr. Speaker or any other occupant of the Chair deal with that?

Chris Bryant: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who watches such matters very closely and is regularly in the House for departmental questions.

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The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): Back Bencher of the year.

Chris Bryant: Indeed, as my right hon. and learned Friend whispers, my hon. Friend is Back Bencher of the year—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I look forward to seeing him more frequently in the Division Lobby with me. However, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would not want me to infringe on the power of the Chair to determine whether a question is topical. In the past, we could have had an entire hour-long Question Time without the day’s elephant in the room being referred to at all. Now, that is no longer possible, and the topical session is a significant improvement to the way in which we do our business.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give his view on the fact that Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople use topical questions more and more, yet as I understand it the original intention was for them to be the tool of Back Benchers? What should happen in that instance?

Chris Bryant: The idea behind topical questions—and topical debates, for that matter—was to allow Back Benchers, primarily, a greater crack of the whip in the Chamber. I have been asked questions by Opposition Members who pretend to be Back Benchers, but 10 minutes later suddenly become Front Benchers on a completely different subject. However, that is part of how the House operates.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): If questioners are to be criticised if their questions are not topical, Ministers must be expected to have an answer ready if they are asked a topical question. Earlier this week, I asked about cuts in the BBC Russian service, of which the Deputy Leader of the House will be well aware. The Minister concerned seemed blissfully unaware of the controversy that had been raging about the issue in the press during the previous two days. Her answer was simply that she would write to me. When Back Benchers such as me ask topical questions, we surely have a right to expect Ministers to be able to provide topical answers.

Chris Bryant: I am not sure that omniscience is handed out to every Minister. One of the difficulties with topical questions is that Ministers can be asked questions about anything under the sun, within their remit. Sometimes it is difficult for Ministers to have immediately to hand or on the tip of their tongues the precise answer that the questioner is looking for. Sometimes a Minister should be able to say, “I am terribly sorry. I do not know the answer to that question, but I will get back to the hon. Gentleman.” A degree of magnanimity—“as magnanimous as Agamemnon”, as Shakespeare put it—might be in order.

Mr. Hendrick: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Chris Bryant: I shall, but I am keen to make a bit of progress.

Mr. Hendrick: I thank my hon. Friend for being generous with his time. In answer to my previous intervention, he referred to Opposition Front Benchers
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secreting themselves on the Back Benches to make topical points. I was referring to Front-Bench spokespeople on the Front Bench using time allotted for topical questions to make known their views on the relevant matters.

Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. I have noted that Mr. Speaker tends to allow the topical questions period to roll on when that has happened. I underline that it is essential that Back-Bench Members from both sides of the House get an opportunity to quiz the Government. Although, obviously, it is appropriate for Front-Bench spokespeople to make points during Question Time, sometimes the most percipient points are made by Back Benchers.

I turn to the motions relating to European scrutiny. We intend to roll forward the changes to Standing Order No. 119 which have been in operation for the past year and would lapse if we were not to renew them at the end of this calendar year. How we scrutinise European business is essential to how we scrutinise the Government.

We have made several innovations in the past year. One of them is the E section in the Order Paper, and it has been particularly useful. It alerts right hon. and hon. Members about which European Committee will be considering which documents from the European Union—from the Council, the Commission or the Parliament—and when. That gives all hon. Members the opportunity to follow the issues if they want. As a Back Bencher, I took a significant interest in all matters European, and I remember that it was often difficult to find out precisely where those issues were debated. Section E is a significant innovation.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I am a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and I have the Chairman’s authority to speak on his behalf. [Hon. Members: He is here!”] I am sorry. My Lord!

We all welcome the capacity to probe European issues. The real problem is not the procedure, but the timetabling. Will the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House talk to the Whips and the usual channels through the Clerks and the Chairmen so that members of the feeder Committees such as the Foreign Affairs Committee can attend those sittings without there being a clash with the core business of the feeder Committees? It is a reasonable request.

Chris Bryant: I am sure that my hon. Friend considers all his requests reasonable. I agree with him. I was about to say that one of the other innovations relating to Standing Orders is that European Committees may now have present members of the European Scrutiny Committee and the relevant departmental Committee. It is sometimes a tall order to be able to arrange hon. Members’ timings. I am happy to speak to the Whips and to others about that.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Chris Bryant: I see that my hon. Friend wishes to intervene. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) referred to him as nobility, but I do not think that he has yet become a satrap.

Mike Gapes: I hope that he never does.

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My hon. Friend knows that I have written to the Leader of the House, and I have had replies from him and from his predecessor on this issue, which is still unresolved. If we are to extend this temporary arrangement, then ways must be found to ensure that members of a Select Committee who might be considering serving on such a Committee are given sufficient notice so that we do not come up with names and then find that there are clashes with other people’s arrangements. Surely the authorities in the parties, in the Whips Offices and wherever can find ways of giving us proper notice so that we can find people to serve on these Committees.

Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to find a way of making this work better, because it is a good innovation. I am sure that there are not many Members who do not think that it is a good idea to have expert Members from departmental Committees informing the debate in a European Committee that is analysing a particular document. For instance, in March this year, when European defence was being considered by a European Committee, it was important that two members of the Defence Committee and a member of the European Scrutiny Committee—the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash)—were present. That significantly improved the quality of the debate that could be had.

Another important innovation dependent on the motion is that a member of the European Scrutiny Committee should be able to make a five-minute statement at the beginning of the debate. This is about improving the quality of the work that we do in European Committees, which are often undervalued by Members, for whatever reason. It is important that we do everything we can to try to rectify the problem, which is particularly acute in relation to Committees such as that chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) which already meet frequently, so there is a heavy burden on them. I undertake to work closely with him, with the Whips Offices and with the House authorities to try to ensure that we can overcome this problem and thereby improve the quality of our European scrutiny.

Let me turn to the amendment tabled by the shadow Leader of the House, which relates to whether there should be a presumption on the European Scrutiny Committee meeting in public unless it chooses to meet in private or a presumption on its meeting in private unless it chooses to meet in public. It is a shame that her amendment was tabled so late yesterday, because its wording means that it would not fulfil the function that I think she would want it to. The amendments to Standing Order No. 143 are not being taken forward, so her amendment would not apply. Equally importantly, it refers to “Each such Committee”, but the Standing Order refers to only one Committee, so there is some ambiguity there.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): It so happens that paragraph (10) of Standing Order No. 143 specifies that

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