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Procedure

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:40 pm on 27th February 1986.

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Photo of Sir Peter Emery Sir Peter Emery , Honiton 4:40 pm, 27th February 1986

I thank the members of the Procedure Committee who, during the past two Sessions, have spent many arduous hours working quietly behind the scenes to no political advantage. I also thank the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), who was a member of the Committee for part of the time. The Committee tries to ensure some modernisation of the proceedings of the House.

The most important part of the debate relates to Committee proceedings on public Bills, and I remind the House that it specifically asked my Committee to consider that matter and make recommendations on it. From some of the remarks by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), it would appear that they have experience of very different Committees from the ones on which I have served during the past 25 years. The Procedure Committee wishes to overcome the more archaic procedural nonsense of the House and drag it into the 20th century. At the same time, it wishes to overcome some of the restrictive practices or procedural madnesses that surround the present timetabling of Bills, which are apparently retained only for a purely party political fandango.

What normal person could believe that it makes sense to retain a procedure that condemns Members of Parliament considering the most controversial legislation to waste 80 or 100 hours on the first three, four or five clauses of a Bill so that a timetable can be forced on the Government—a procedure which, when applied, means that 30, 40 or sometimes 100 clauses of major Bills go to the House of Lords almost without any consideration by the Committee? Who, other than someone soft in the head, could believe that, in this day and age, it makes sense for serious amendments to major legislation to be considered after a full working day by a Committee sitting at 2 am or 3 am, and sometimes even at 7 am or 8 am? People outside the House think that we are mad.

May I refer to some of the less contentious recommendations of the Committee. I am pleased that the Government welcome our recommendation to include Special Standing Committees permanently in the Standing Orders. With the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney, I hope that that procedure will be used much more than it has been. Every Minister who gave evidence to the Committee and who was in charge of a Bill that went to a Special Standing Committee suggested that it greatly helped his handling of the Bill. The only other amendment tabled by the Committee would extend the right to request Special Standing Committee procedures to the Opposition Front Bench and other Members of the House. It should not be reserved to Ministers.

It may have escaped hon. Members' notice that the Committee's recommendation would mean that the motion is not debatable. The Committee has tried to balance matters so that the Government do not lose time. Instead of having a debatable motion, the question should be put forthwith, but we have suggested that hon. Members other than Ministers should be allowed to propose it.

The closure in Committee is to be known as the "Golding gallop" after a loophole found by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding). I hope that I can congratulate the hon. Gentleman later today on having won a position of importance in his trade union. He will be missed by the Committee, and I hope that this will not be his swansong.

As to written or oral questions lost, one point was not raised by the Committee, but was made by the Government. One reason for not accepting that an oral question should automatically become a written question would be that the hon. Member would be debarred for six months from tabling that question for oral answer. He may not wish to do that, but he may be unable to withdraw the question because the House is not sitting. It might be better to allow the Government's suggestion to go forward, but I have no major views on that. The recommendation on Standing Order No.10 applications must be an improvement.

The main procedural amendment has been signed by more than 150 right hon. and hon. Members. It is wrong to say, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) did, that the vast majority of them were elected in the previous two elections. The list includes a former Opposition Chief Whip, who was elected a long time ago. It also includes right hon. and hon. Members who have been in the House for a long time. That comment was not up to the hon. Gentleman's usual standard of intervention. It is interesting to note that support for the amendment comes from both sides of the House, from former Whips, former Ministers—Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all.