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Procedure

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:20 pm on 27th February 1986.

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Photo of Mr Enoch Powell Mr Enoch Powell , South Down 6:20 pm, 27th February 1986

The Minister responsible for the Bill wants to get it through and the Government of whose programme the Bill is a part want to get their programme through because they are constantly being threatened by new demands for legislation, some of them necessary, and some of them, in the view of others, illegitimate. Therefore, time is always of the essence for Government. Time is the weapon which Governments most fear when it may be used against them. The undoubted inconvenience which hon. Members suffer in the service of the House, with all its imperfections, ought not to persuade the House to disarm itself, formally or automatically, of the use of the instrument of time in the post Second Reading stages of a Bill.

I now come to the other matter on which, although there was no dissent in the report of the Select Committee, there was, nevertheless, a feeling of dissatisfaction within the Committee —the proposal that the experiment with 10-minute speeches should be continued for another Session. Had the proposal been that the 10-minute rule should become a permanent Standing Order of the House, the Committee would not have been unanimous. Indeed, it was a sense that further experience might lead hon. Members to the same conclusion held by many members of the Committee that induced those who would otherwise have been dissentient to go along with the notion that the experiment might justifiably be renewed for another Session.

The Committee found it impossible to establish and was doubtful about the proposition that the 10-minute rule, in the debates in which it was applied, resulted in more hon. Members being able to speak than would otherwise have been the case. Sitting through the concluding stages of major debates when there is pressure on the time of the House and observing how, in the last hour or so, not just 10-minute speeches but speeches of seven, five and three minutes are fitted in, one must be doubtful whether the stately progression of 10-minute speeches for two hours between 6 and 8 o'clock or 7 and 9 o'clock would increase the total number of hon. Members who could contribute.

Dare I insert a query? It has not been voiced and perhaps it is dangerous to voice it. Is it desirable that the maximum numerical toll of Members should contribute to a debate? As the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) reminded the House, sÓme of the most important matters which hon. Members have sought to bring to our attention at untimely parts of the parliamentary day have required and used many more than 10 minutes. There is a constraint and the internal discipline of public opinion in the House acting on hon. Members which is the only safe and reliable limitation on the length of our speeches. Indeed, there is a sort of analogy between the function of an open end for time in the business of the House and the right of an hon. Member, once called, to occupy the Floor until he has bored the House to his satisfaction. That is the ultimate safeguard of the individual hon. Member's right to take the opportunity which has been accorded to him. We should require much more justification than we have yet had for supposing that the advantages of the 10-minute rule outweigh the disadvantages.

I should like to refer briefly to two minor matters connected with the motion. One has not so far been mentioned. It arises in an amendment to the motion on Special Standing Committees. As the motion stands, it would enable a Minister, by a motion which is to be put forthwith, to alter the 28-day period for Special Standing Committees. I know how open-minded the Leader of the House is on these matters. Indeed, he has proven today his status as a House of Commons man by his stance on the major issue. I submit to the right hon. Gentleman that where a business motion alters, for a specific purpose, a time limit which is in the Standing Orders of the House, it is our custom that it is debatable. If the Government say, "This once for this purpose we should alter this limitation in the Standing Orders," they should have the opportunity of giving reasons and of listening to arguments. I hope that on consideration the right hon. Gentleman will be persuaded that, as with other business motions, it should not be necessary for the motion mentioned in paragraph 4 of motion 4 to be put forthwith.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman expressed himself as being open-minded about the elimination of the word "written" from motion 11. The distinction which he sought to draw between the nature and purposes of oral questions and written questions cannot be a justification for treating those questions differently, if they are to be swept out of existence by a Session being broken. There have been one or two other observations upon that point during the debate, and I hope that he will find it possible to concur with what was the considered and unanimous advice of the Select Committee, which debated the question whether only written questions should be concerned, and decided that it was wiser that the new Standing Order, if it is made, should apply to both.